Expectation is not a new concept at the start of a new season in every sport. Any supporter will have their own hopes and fears about what might happen to their side, sure, but what they really expect is something a bit different. And the two sides tasked with kicking of the Aviva Premiership rugby season at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night were at the very sharp end of the expectation. The hosts, Northampton Saints, are in unchartered territory as defending champions. No longer the plucky underdog, the anticipation of a brave season ultimately ending in failure and a refereeing controversy involving Wayne Barnes has gone with it (for most). Their fans and opposition sides expect them to perform. At Gloucester, on the other hand, there is a genuine belief that a corner has been turned. A new, talented coach in David Humphreys, leads a plethora of quality signings, the majority of which are there to ensure that the West Country pack is never used as a form of doormat by opponents ever again. This is the season where they begin to challenge once again.
There may have been a heightened sense of expectation around the ground, but it was perhaps inevitable that the opening exchanges were cagey with little sign of the fast-flowing rugby that both sides are capable of. Big Ben Morgan, so often anonymous in club colours but a talisman in the white of England, caught the eye with a couple of promising rampages and Ken Pisi had a smart scoot down the right hand touch line – only to see his chip kick run dead – but otherwise, you got the feeling that neither defence was overly threatened. But then again, neither side had played their best cards in attack. Instead, the scoring was opened by Stephen Myler after Alex Corbisiero forced John Afoa up in a scrum, before James Hook levelled with a well-struck effort from distance – following an attempt from scrum-half Greg Laidlaw, which cannoned off the crossbar.
Saints seemed genuinely insulted that the visitors had dared to trouble the scoreboard, and exploded into life. Having opted for an attacking lineout from a penalty, Lee Dickson switched play and quick hands from Luther Burrell allowed the abnormally large George North to dive in on the blindside for the game’s opening try. Myler slotted the conversion from out wide, and 5 minutes later (after Samu Manoa had cut Billy Twelvetrees in half with an early contender for hit of the season) he was adding another two points – this time from right out in front. It came from another attacking lineout, and this time the fly half landed a perfectly placed chip kick in behind the Gloucester defence for George Pisi to gather and touchdown beneath the sticks. 17 – 3, and it all of a sudden seemed a bit easy for the Champions.
The Cherry and Whites were doing their best sieve impression in defence – in particular around the narrow channels – which was perhaps understandable given the complete overhaul in personnel. But the East Midlanders are not renowned for their sympathy and, after Laidlaw had attempted to steady some nerves with another penalty, North effectively sealed the game with another 7-pointer just before half time. Saints flung the ball wide, with James Wilson and George Pisi combining well to offload to North in the middle and – despite ignoring a clear try-scoring pass to go it alone – the giant winger displayed a frankly unfair level of agility, pirouetting his way out of one tackle before landing a ludicrous sidestep to evade another and dive over for his second score. With Myler’s conversion, it left the half time score 24-6.
It was, already, damage limitation for the visitors. There had been questions raised about Saints’ ability to deal with the weight of expectation and how quickly Gloucester’s big name signings would gel – but these had been emphatically answered, and there was more proof to come in the second half. Three minutes in, to be exact. Wilson scythed through a gaping hole on the blindside and gave a pass to Burrell, and the England centre just about got the ball down in the corner – there was a question as to whether the big man had control of the ball but, to be frank, it didn’t matter at this stage. Myler slotted another superb conversion and the Saints already had their bonus point. And they were nowhere near done yet.
On 50 minutes, Myler continued his impressive display with a looping pass that missed out 3 defenders to put North in for a simple score – and his hat-trick – before substitute Fotuali’i scooted down an undefended blindside to claim a try just 7 minutes later. Myler disgracefully missed both touchline conversions but with the score now at 41 – 6, he could perhaps be forgiven.
The hosts – and the Franklins Garden’s faithful – soon had the 50 point mark on their mind, and it was inevitable this new target was hit. And they did it in some style. Firstly, new signing Jon Fisher plunged over in the right hand corner following more good work from Wilson and soft hands from Christian Day, before Luther Burrell snaffled a loose pass from a backpeddling Gloucester pack to add the coup-de-grace on the 75 minute mark, with substitute Will Hooley adding the extras.
It would prove to be the final act of a decisive game of rugby. Even the most optimistic of Saints fans and uncertain of Gloucester fans could have probably considered a 53 – 6 final score as being particular accurate, but the brightly lit figures at the end of Franklins Garden do not lie. For Gloucester, it can be chalked up as a learning experience and a reality check; a realisation that a complete metamorphosis will not change overnight. They will improve and they will threaten teams. But for Northampton, there was no ecstatic celebration from the coaching staff, or even the players. With all the talk of expectation, it seems that those at Saints have embraced it – they now thrive on it. They expected to destroy their opponents on Friday night. And, for the rest of the league, that is very ominous indeed.
Saracens 34 – 28 Wasps: Sarries pinched a thriller thanks to a last-gasp score from hat-trick hero Dave Strettle. The former England man had already picked up a double to add to Chris Ashton’s effort, but they still trailed by one point with two minutes to go thanks to a score from Nathan Hughes and a brace from fit-again winger Christian Wade. It would prove to be not enough for Dai Young’s side.
London Irish 15 – 20 Harlequins: Part 2 of the London double header saw a rather more cagey affair, with all of Irish’s points coming courtesy of Shane Geraghty’s boot. Quins, though, crossed twice through first half efforts from Ugo Monye and his substitute, Ollie Lindsay-Hague.
Sale Sharks 20 – 29 Bath Rugby: Bath left it late to claim a tense win against the Sharks in Salford, despite going ahead in the opening minute through an Anthony Watson try. Scores from Mark Jennings and Mark Easter had put the hosts in front, but a late effort from Semesa Rokoduguni put the game back into the West-Country outfit’s hands.
Leicester Tigers 36 – 17 Newcastle Falcons: The Tigers took a while to get going but eventually dispatched of a plucky and enterprising Falcons side with a glut of tries in the second half. Nicky Goneva carried on his try-scoring habit with a treble, before substitute David Mele grabbed one for himself, whilst the Falcons responded through Richard Mayhew and Andy Saull.
London Welsh 0 – 52 Exeter Chiefs: The Exiles were humiliated on their return to the big time as the Chiefs routed them at the Kassam Stadium. Tom Waldrom grabbed a double on his debut, with Dave Ewers, Sam Hill, Ian Whitten, Jack Arnott and Chrysander Botha all claiming tries as well.