Tuilagi's rampaging best can warm English hearts
March 3, 2014
Look who's back... © Getty Images
It was a weekend where Northampton Saints and Saracens stretched their lead at the top of the table while at the other end Worcester Warriors are now 11 points adrift. Monday Maul looks back at the talking points.
The return of Manu
Manu Tuilagi managed 69 minutes against Newcastle and showed few ill effects from his time away from the game. He has not played since September 29 but against the Falcons, he was throwing himself around as if he had never been away. He made 36 metres with ball in hand - the third highest total behind Niki Goneva and Jordan Crane - and also made six tackles. He also managed to pick up a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.
The inevitable question now surrounds his England prospects. Stuart Lancaster's men have two matches left in the current Six Nations and Tuilagi's Test chances will probably have to wait until their summer tour of New Zealand. But the sight of Tuilagi back to his rampaging best will bring warmth to the hearts of Tigers and England fans.
Brutal Saracens power
The weekend's awards
Is there a more influential back-row in the Premiership than Jacques Burger? On Friday night's showing against Bath, no. Burger made few friends at the Recreation Ground as he flew himself in anything in blue, black and white with Anthony Watson caught high and Peter Stringer late. But he was one of the key protagonists behind their win.
He nullified the threat of Francois Louw and was an integral figure in Saracens' rush defence. They also had Alex Goode filling in at fly-half and having had just 30 seconds notice over this as Charlie Hodgson pulled out late, it was an impressive performance. Mention also has to be given to Brad Barritt who put in a huge 17 tackles and also teed up David Strettle's try with a delicious nudge through.
Cockerill starts the mind games
"We have been crap all season and we are third, Bath have been brilliant all season and they are third, too". Ah, it must be nearing the end of the campaign as Richard Cockerill starts cranking up the pressure on those around the Tigers. His assertion the Tigers "have been crap all season" is a touch harsh on his team who have had to cope with a ridiculous list of injuries and have managed 10 wins from 16.
One player who has not been "crap" is Vereniki Goneva. He is worth his weight in gold for the Tigers and has scored key tries all season. His first try against the Falcons was a wonderful piece of individual skill as he handed-off the Newcastle tackler, danced down the touchline, kicked forward and then scored. Rumours persist of a move to Castres but if Tigers can somehow keep him, then they must move heaven and earth to make it happen.
Sharks find some tooth with Cipriani
Four wins from five is a great return for Sale. On Saturday they saw off Wasps 21-17 and there is now an eight-point difference between the two sides with the Sharks in sixth and Wasps in seventh. Following their poor showing last term, Steve Diamond recruited Premiership-hardened players in the summer and they have given the team a backbone.
And profiting from their impressive pack is Danny Cipriani. After his Man of the Match showing against Wasps, calls for an England recall will inevitably intensify but he must just keep focusing on the next match. He is playing some fantastic rugby - his show-and-go for Johnny Leota's try was mesmeric - and if he continues doing that then further accolades will follow.
Pearce uses Rec to advantage
While referee Luke Pearce's call to sin-bin Jacques Burger for his high tackle on Anthony Watson was right on Friday night, the method he got to the decision was wrong. When the incident occurred, there was no call of foul play or referral to the TMO. It was only after, it seemed, he saw the incident replayed on the big screen at the corner of the Rec did he call for TMO intervention.
The Saints go marching on
Despite being without their international contingent of Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, George North, Luther Burrell and Courtney Lawes, the Saints still put five tries on Gloucester. They have real strength in depth and while the starting XV did its best to hammer its way past Gloucester, with Calum Clark superb, it was the bench which ignited their eventual bonus point win.
Having Ben Foden waiting on the bench is a lovely luxury for Jim Mallinder to have and he was sat there alongside Samu Manoa and Lee Dickson among others. Their 15 best players will go some way to winning the league, if they manage that feat, but the other squad members will be just as important.
The valiant losers
It was another case of so close, but so far for the Warriors. After storming into a 13-0 lead over Harlequins they eventually found themselves 21-13 down going into the final stages of their match at the Stoop. But Chris Pennell, one of the Premiership's outstanding players this season, took them by the scruff of the neck, scored his try, converted it and reduced the deficit to a single point. But such has been the story of their season, they failed to get over the line. They now have six games left to save their top-flight status.
"We are struggling physically to cope with such a small group. You can see when we start rolling the bench that things get a little bit ragged, and we couldn't really stem the flow," Warriors boss Dean Ryan said post-match. "We're still fighting like mad and still feel we can get something in the back pocket before we go to the north-east [to face second-bottom Newcastle]."
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.