For some 2011 is already proving to be a happy new year. Leeds, Harlequins and Sale enjoyed huge wins on the opening weekend of it. Sale were unrecognisable under their new coach Pete Anglesea and captain Mark Cueto.
The performance in the first half against Saracens was outstanding, remember this was the side thumped by Leicester six days earlier. There was a real spirit, players playing for each other and their coach and their third try by Chris Bell was the sort of try the Sale wingers have only been able to dream about after being stuck out on the freezing wing with on average three touches of the ball per game.
Talking of which it wasn't much of a fun outing for Gavin Henson who remarkably by the time he was substituted had a shirt as clean as when he started, no mean feat on the Sale pitch. He barely touched the ball at Edgeley Park, watched on as Cueto touched down for the first try and managed to get himself in Brad Barrit's (playing the inside centre position Henson is eyeing up) way. All was enough though to earn him fitness testing with Wales this week and a staunch defence from Shaun Edwards in the Sky Sports News' studio on Sunday night.
With so little to look at, the analysis for London Irish on Henson ahead of their game with Saracens was made easy, in fact they were so distracted by the tan the only remarks made were over the level of orange he has now reached. I think any squad looking to end a run of nine straight defeats will be delighted to see him line up in the midfield on Sunday especially at outside centre where he clearly doesn't want to play. One thing Toby Booth wishes his squad could inherit from Henson is his self confidence "Henson has so much self confidence in his own ability if all my players had that you wouldn't ever have to give a team talk."
Wishing for a Snood
As I stood at the London Irish training ground losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, wishing that like Seilala Mapusua I had taken the snood fashion one step further with a white balaclava, it seemed a long way away from the sunshine of Abu Dhabi. It might have had something to do with the fact it was about zero degrees but the idea of playing a competitive game with sun on their backs got the thumbs up from everyone.
It sounds delightful a sunshine break and a game of rugby but a quick glance at the fans message boards and it is clear not everybody has the same warm feeling about the idea. In the pursuit of becoming a global brand and attracting new money there are some that feel the real fans, those that are happy to watch Wasps against Harlequins, without their International stars in a LV=Cup a competition that most people still haven't worked out how you qualify from a group where you don't play the other teams in it, have been forgotten.
London Irish have talked about playing a St Patrick's Day game in Boston in the past, Leicester too have suggested they could be ready to go global, it is an exciting time for the game. Only a few years ago the prospect of playing club games at Twickenham or Wembley would have been unthinkable and on one weekend over Christmas we had both, so watch this space.
Manu for England?
Those two sides meet this weekend on a super Saturday of rugby which also includes Leicester against Northampton which should be a fantastic match up. With the Six Nations now only a month a way it's trial time for a number of players hoping to be a part of the tournament and this years World Cup. It has been a productive few weeks for Manu Tuilagi, the youngest and English qualified of the Tuilagi dynasty, with a number of people predicting he could be an England World Cup player by the end of the year.
The Leicester Director of Rugby won't enter into the debate, (secretly I'd imagine fearing he may lose yet more players to the national cause) the youngster who qualifies for England on residency grounds, and whilst he is short of first team experience but his fan base has been growing game by game. Last weekend he played in his brother Alesana for a try against Exeter the week before he had two tries of his own against Sale in a Man of the Match performance. Martin Johnson and his coaches need to decide whether he is a risk worth taking when they name their Six Nations squad.
Elsewhere this weekend, Exeter will be expecting a backlash from Gloucester after they were beaten by Leeds. It is game on at the bottom after Neil Back and Andy Key's team pulled off victory against Bryan Redpath's team and they will be looking to build on that form at Bath. It piles the pressure on Newcastle who after missing out on even a losing bonus point at Wasps on Sunday are going to have to rely on their home form beginning against Sale on Friday night. With Europe and the LV taking centre stage over the next few weeks teams will be desperate to sign off from the Premiership with a win.
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