Unsung heroes and hooker spats
December 30, 2013
Steve Diamond and Richard Cockerill failed to see eye-to-eye on Saturday © Getty Images and PA Photos
It may be the festive season but seasonal good cheer was largely absent during Round 11 of the Aviva Premiership. Monday Maul looks back at the main talking points.
The unsung heroes
Every team has a player who week-in-week-out gives everything for their side, plays well, inevitably has some influence on the eventual outcome of the match but lacks the box-office billing of some of their team mates. On Saturday, a selection of these everyday protagonists came to the fore. For Northampton, who smashed Bath, they had Stephen Myler and Christian Day playing out of their skin. People often use the phrase 'first name on the team sheet' and while we can only muse over exactly who Jim Mallinder's primary etchings are, the chances of Myler and Day being in the elite batch are likely.
While the Saints were showing little good will in their win over Bath, Harlequins were playing in front of a packed Twickenham. Injuries have not been kind to Quins this season and no more so than at hooker with both Joe Gray and Rob Buchanan out for prolonged spells. But such is the transient nature of sport, one's loss is another's gain. Step forward Dave Ward. He has been fantastic at hooker for Quins this season. At times during his career it looked like he might be one of the Premiership's great unfulfilled talents - he never got frequent first-team rugby at Sale, Northampton or Bath - but at present, he is playing some brilliant rugby in the loose, his set piece is solid and messers Gray and Buchanan will have to play well to get a look-in at No.2.
The Chiefs' time will come
It is sometimes necessary to stop and take stock of the great work that is happening at Sandy Park. Five seasons ago on December 26, 2009, they were playing Bristol at home in the Championship in front of 7405 people. Fast-forward to the Saturday just gone and they were taking on Harlequins at Twickenham as equals, with another zero on the attendance figure. Exeter are a top six side but have stayed true to the same values they had when they were running out in the Championship. They are not a team built on names, but on hard work. They were outplayed by Harlequins on Saturday, but they will get other opportunities to impress at England's HQ, as Rob Baxter mentioned post-match.
"In hindsight this result was probably to be expected a little bit because it was our first occasion at Twickenham. We think we'll be involved in big games down the line so this was very important for us because if you want to win big games, you have to win at Twickenham."
The Weekend's Awards
Establishing a backbone
Wasps and Sale are no strangers to relegation dogfights. Two years ago, it was Wasps who were staring nervously into the precipice while the Sharks were more a common minnow rather than lean, mean hunting machines last term. But both survived, rebuilt and refocused. This weekend there were two perfect illustrations of their development. On Friday night, Wasps went to Newcastle and emerged victorious - a fiendishly difficult place to go, especially in those blustery conditions. Yes, Wasps conceded two tries, but their defence largely stood firm and credit needs to go to Brad Davis for that.
And on Saturday, the Sharks were 17-0 down to the Tigers but managed to get the game back to within three points at 23-20 and eventually secure a losing bonus point. Last season, Sale would have rolled over and let the Tigers tickle their belly, but this time they found some niggle and got back into the game. Wasps and Sale - two teams who have experienced glory in the past but are now playing the game their way and trying to forge their own little bit of history.
The start of the silly season
Sunday's news that Freddie Burns has reportedly committed to joining Leicester ahead of next term signals the start of the silly season. With clubs 'officially' allowed to start talking to out of contract players from other Premiership teams on January 1 expect there to be a raft of re-signings and moves announced.
The Saints' brutal power
Bath were beaten up by the Saints, of that there can be no doubt. Wherever you look in the Saints' side, is physicality. George North played his best game for the Saints while Luther Burrell outmuscled Kyle Eastmond in the centres. Even Jamie Elliott, one of the smaller Northampton players, is bulking up and has developed his game to the extent where he is not overawed when faced with the physically superior Matt Banahan. With Dylan Hartley, Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes in the pack, Saints have the physicality to match it with the best of them - a key characteristic alongside their impressive skill set.
An old-fashioned ding-dong battle
Former hookers Richard Cockerill and Steve Diamond rolled back the years on Saturday as they were locked in a spat, albeit a verbal one rather than the physical nature they enjoyed when they ran out during their playing days. It was like a playground scene. Cockerill accused Diamond of coaching Sale to cheat at the scrums while Diamond responded with a thinly-veiled attack at the Tigers' wage budget. Neither are whiter than white, nor afraid of a bit of niggle. What will come of the spat? Probably nothing, but it shows the confrontational nature of the front-row and the rivalries established are one that stays with you even when the boots are consigned to a dark corner of the company car.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.