Worcester 13 Northampton 12: It wasn’t just a new dawn for English rugby that kicked off at Sixways last night, just six days removed from the World Cup hosts’ disastrous exit.
In amongst the mix of recriminations and point-proving as the Aviva Premiership dusted itself down and began a new campaign, Donncha O’Callaghan was starting a new and very different chapter in a career that refuses to go quietly into the night.
At the age of 36 and with 94 Ireland caps under his belt, the veteran lock who refused to settle for a bit-part role at his beloved Munster, O’Callaghan embarked on his Worcester Warriors career last night and if it was strange to see the man who donned the red of his home province a record 263 times over 17 seasons dressed in Warriors’ Leinster-like blue, imagine how it must have felt for the player himself.
BT Sport’s Craig Doyle, returning to the day job for the evening before he sidles back to the World Cup on ITV, had bigged up the Premiership as the best domestic league in the world, as if to rally the armchair troops still coming to terms with the exit of Stuart Lancaster’s England from it’s own tournament.
And there was plenty of reason for those overlooked by the under-fire national head coach to make their presence felt as the Saints, last season’s league table toppers, visited newly-promoted Worcester. Whereas Northampton’s Dylan Hartley and Luther Burrell had points to prove, Dean Ryan’s Warriors were at the start of what was being labelled as a fight to stay up before the first ball had been kicked.
Which is precisely where O’Callaghan came in. Along with former Saints skipper Phil Dowson and South African Wynand Olivier, Ryan has sought to bolster his squad of young and promising Championship winners with a bit of backbone and experience.
This was, in essence, typical O’Callaghan. He might not have touched the ball a great deal but he was making his presence felt for the team and they were enjoying him being there. When fly-half Tom Heathcote put in captain and former Saint GJ Van Velze, O’Callaghan’s current landlord, for the opening try, he had a large home crowd on their feet, the conversion sending Worcester into a 10-6 lead on 32 minutes they would take to the interval.
With World Cup players soon to return to their Premiership squads, a strong start to the campaign is vital on as level a playing field as it’s going to get for Worcester, and they could ill afford to lose a home opener against a side still missing Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and George North.
Saints’ Stephen Myler added to his two first-half penalties with a successful kick soon after the break and when Heathcote missed four consecutive penalty kicks, one earned by O’Callaghan over the ball at the breakdown, the 10-9 scoreline saw home nerves kick in as Worcester were left with 11 minutes to defend their slender lead.
O’Callaghan has not been alone in adjusting to new surroundings, with Saints naming fellow Munster exile JJ Hanrahan on the bench. He watched from a pitchside on an exercise bike from where he saw Myler slot a go-ahead penalty 90 seconds from full-time only for Heathcote to atone with the last throw of the dice and snatch a winning drop goal.
Tries: van Velze. Cons: Heathcote. Pens: Heathcote. Drop Goals: Heathcote.
Pennell, Vuna, Olivier, Mills, Biggs, Heathcote, Arr, Leleimalefaga, Annett, Schonert, O’Callaghan, Barry, Dowson, Mama, van Velze.
Rees for Schonert (60), Cox for Mama (49)
Pens: Myler 4.
Foden, K. Pisi, Stephenson, Burrell, Elliott, Myler, L. Dickson, A. Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Paterson, C. Day, Gibson, Fisher, S. Dickinson.
G. Pisi for Stephenson (41), Fotuali’i for L. Dickson (60), E. Waller for A. Waller (63), Haywood for Hartley (63), Hill for Brookes (67), Harrison for C. Day (49).
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