All posts by Thomas Branston

Sports Journalist | Rugby Enthusiast | Blogger | Media Officer at Worcester Valkyries |

PREVIEW | Northampton Saints vs Bath Rugby

By Thomas Branston
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Dylan Hartley scores Northampton’s second try of the afternoon.
Northampton Saints host Bath at Franklins Gardens on Friday as they look to add a second successive home win after their derby day heroics in a 24-11 win over Leicester Tigers.
Jim Mallinder’s men gained their first win of the season less than a week ago against East Midland rivals Leicester with scores from Luther Burrell, Dylan Hartley and Tom Collins to secure a crucial win lifting them off the foot of the table.
Bath come into the encounter with two impressive wins against Leicester and reigning European champions Saracens, the latter a convincing performance earned Todd Blackadder’s side a 31-21 victory at the REC.
Courtney Lawes captains the side for the first time with Dylan Hartley being absent after picking up a hand injury last weekend.


Tom Wood (shoulder) is still absent for the hosts as Mike Haywood, Paul Hill and David Ribbans replace Hartley, Kieran Brookes and Christian Day in the starting line-up.
Sam Underhill will make his Bath debut and is one of four changes to Blackadder’s side with Ben Tapuai, Kahn Fotuali’i and Charlie Ewels all making their first starts of the season.
Last time round at the Gardens, Bath took the spoils in a narrow 18-14 win despite a late comeback from the hosts.
George Ford kicked all 18 points for Bath including two drop goal attempts, Northampton’s Nic Groom scored two late tries to put the visitors on edge but it proved too little too late.


Northampton Saints | 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 George North, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Tom Collins, 10 Harry Mallinder, 9 Nic Groom; 1 Alex Waller, 2 Mikey Haywood, 3 Paul Hill, 4 Michael Paterson, 5 David Ribbans, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 7 Jamie Gibson, 8 Teimana Harrison
Replacements | 16 Reece Marshall, 17 Campese Ma’afu, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Christian Day, 20 Lewis Ludlam, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 James Grayson, 23 Ben Foden
Bath | 15. Anthony Watson, 14. Semesa Rokoduguni, 13. Jonathan Joseph, 12. Ben Tapuai, 11. Matt Banahan, 10. Rhys Priestland, 9. Kahn Fotuali’i; 1. Beno Obano, 2. Tom Dunn, 3. Anthony Perenise, 4. Charlie Ewels, 5. Elliott Stooke, 6. Matt Garvey (c), 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Taulupe Faletau
Replacements | 16. Jack Walker, 17. Nick Auterac, 18. Scott Andrews, 19. James Phillips, 20. Paul Grant, 21. Darren Allinson, 22. Freddie Burns, 23. Max Clark

Premiership Rugby Reaction: Saracens 55 Northampton Saints 24

By Thomas Branston


(C) Saracens for Photography. Hat-trick hero Sean Maitland goes over in the corner at Twickenham.

Mark McCall’s Saracens opened up their 2017/18 Premiership campaign in emphatic fashion scoring nine tries in a 55-24 thrashing of a poor Northampton Saints side.

A hat-trick for Sean Maitland accompanied with scores from from Brad Barritt, Richard Wigglesworth, Alex Lozowski, Vincent Koch, Schalk Britts and Ben Spencer set up a winning start for the reigning European champions.

Northampton Saints were few and far from their best after finishing seventh last season but Jim Mallinder’s men struggled to get going in a very one sided first-half and suffered the consequences as Saracens ran in seven first half tries to all but seal the encounter.

Saints did join the scoring in the second period but failed to gain a bonus-point with Lewis Ludlam crossing the whitewash for the first score which was followed by a rare Tom Wood double.

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Saracens managed to dismantle Jim Mallinder’s men without the presence of key England stars, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Owen Farrell as well as new signing Liam Williams.

Despite missing several key names in their ranks, Saracens not only dismantled Northampton but made their Champions Cup pool stage opponents look worlds apart.

Saracens do not seem to have lost any momentum over the post season break and look as good as ever as they look forward to what should be another season full of silverware.

Northampton will need to recover from this heavy defeat quickly as they host east midland rivals Leicester Tigers at Franklins Gardens whilst Saracens travel to Bath on Saturday in hope of continuing their strong start to the new campaign.

Maori All Blacks vs the British and Irish Lions: Everything you need to know

By Thomas Branston


The British and Irish Lions will look to bounce back from a second tour defeat to another Super Rugby side as they face the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua on Saturday.

The Lions were edged out 23-22 against the Highlanders in a pulsating game at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

Warren Gatland has named a strong squad that will be led by Peter O’Mahony and the Irish back row has described his captains call up as “a huge honour.”

England fly-half Owen Farrell was named in the squad but has since pulled out with a grade one quad strain after picking up the injury during training.

Dan Biggar replaces Farrell on the bench after a strong performance against the Highlanders.


Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong will make up the front row and Gatland has opted for an English lock pairing (Kruis and Itoje) with O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau in the back row.

Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton will complete their Ireland Rugby combination at scrum-half and fly-half while Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies partner in midfield.

George North, Anthony Watson and Leigh Halfpenny make up the back three with this side expected to replicate Warren Gatland’s XV for the test series.

Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler Iain Henderson, Sam Warburton, Greig Laidlaw, Dan Biggar and Elliot Daly have all been named on the bench.


Maori All Blacks Head Coach Colin Cooper prepares his side for a stern test on Saturday and his inherited team haven’t been beaten since 2003, winning 20 consecutive games.

His sides last defeat was a 23-9 loss against England in New Plymouth on September 6 2003.

The Maori All Blacks were the only side to beat the British and Irish Lions outside of the test series on their last tour of New Zealand in 2005 with a 19-13 win.

Cooper has named nine All Blacks in his squad to face the British and Irish Lions, boasting a promising backline full of young talent and a forward pack brimming with power and experience.

Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon will captain the side and will hope the Maori All Blacks can replicate what his Super Rugby side did on Tuesday.

The backline plays host to some of the most exciting young generation of  All Black backs with talented wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, fly-half Damian McKenzie and Blues wing Rieko Ioane who has already faced the Lions on their tour.

Centre Charlie Ngatai and scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow make up the rest of the backline which poses great threats to the Lions defence.

Veteran loose forward Liam Messam adds strength to the pack with 43 All Black caps and is joined by Elliott Dixon and prop Kane Hames, with hooker Hika Elliott on the bench.

Maori All Blacks to face the British and Irish Lions |


The British and Irish Lions to face the Maori All Blacks | DCV4xrvXoAEE-_F.jpg-large.jpg


Five things we’ve learnt from the Highlanders’ 23-22 win over the British and Irish Lions

By Thomas Branston


1 | The British and Irish Lions were succumbed to an agonisingly close defeat in Dunedin. The side learned some hard truths in their narrow defeat to the Highlanders, however there were many positives to take from their improved performance.

The likes of Kyle Sinckler, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Joseph and Tommy Seymour all had stand-out performances in the red jersey. The set-piece was improved but it was at the breakdown where this side fell short of success as they threw away a nine-point lead.

2 | A huge number of missed tackles played its part in an open attacking game on Tuesday. The Lions lack of defensive structure fed the brilliance of the Highlanders and allowed them to play a Super Rugby style of game.

A theme that has followed the British and Irish Lions throughout their tour so far has been their lack of discipline. In key moments against the Super Rugby outfit handed Lima Sopoaga and Marty Banks easy penalties, which ultimately won the game for the hosts.

Against the Crusaders on Saturday, the Lions had produced a sensational defensive lock-out, but in this match-up they reverted to the frequent lapses of concentration which undermined their efforts in last week’s defeat by the Blues.


3 | Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo proved just how difficult the test series is going to be with the two individuals being selected in Steve Hansen’s 33-man squad to face the Lions. Although Malakai Fekitoa missed the cut, the outside centre showed his brilliance through the encounter and posed very dangerous to the Lions defence.

Sopoaga was crucial in the dynamics of the squad when attacking, the fly-half was at the centre of everything constructive the Highlanders did. Whilst Naholo was at his prolific best, scoring a try and knocking Courtney Lawes out for the count. The powerful winger has shown Warren Gatland that he is not to be messed with when the Lions come to face him in an All Blacks jersey.

4 | The British and Irish Lions injury count is mounting up, Courtney Lawes left the field of play with suspected concussion after his collision with Naholo before the powerful winger got through three Lions defenders including Lawes to score during the first-half.

Stuart Hogg was also confirmed before the game with the Highlanders that he would take no further part of the tour after his accident clash with Conor Murray against the Crusaders a few days ago in Christchurch.


5 | Kyle Sinckler is making steady progress and is showing signs of a prop that could be in line for a place in the match day 23 for the tests against New Zealand.

The 24-year-old made several breaks and ball carries during a physical game in Dunedin and with his continued performances, he will surely be on Gatland’s shortlist with at least one game left for him to audition in.

Marty Banks keeps his cool as Highlanders inflict second defeat upon the British and Irish Lions

By Thomas Branston


Highlanders fly-half Marty Banks kept his cool to convert a late penalty which secured a 23-22 victory for the Super Rugby side despite missed chances from Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly.

Scores from Waisake Naholo and Liam Coltman accompanied by penalties from Lima Sopoaga and his replacement Marty Banks were enough to secure victory.

The sides were level at half-time thanks to converted scores from Naholo and Jonathan Joseph with a penalty a piece.

Tommy Seymour and Sam Warburton both crossed the line before Coltman added the Highlanders second score of the game and Banks converted a late penalty to take the win.


The Highlanders got the game off to an epic start with the first attack of the game, Naholo going close to a score in the corner after good work from Malakai Fekitoa.

The Lions kept them at bay but conceded a penalty, which Sopoaga converted to give the hosts an early lead.

Dan Biggar then took his opportunity to level the score ten minutes later with an easy penalty as the Lions began to get a foothold in the game.

Naholo then beat three Lions defenders to crash over the giving the Highlanders a deserving lead with Sopoaga converting.

However the Lions had other ideas with the ball going wide from a scrum on the touchline, CJ Stander did well to get the ball across to Biggar who dummied his man to get his pass off to Joseph who beat everyone to the line.

Biggar slotted his conversion through to level the scores and it stayed that way at the half-time interval with both sides locking horns on a slick surface under the roof of the Forsyth Barr Stadium.


Seymour got the second-half off to pulsating start with a try after the wing picked off a Sopoaga kick-pass to run in untouched.

The hosts replied with Sopoaga converting another easy penalty to bring the score to within two points but Warburton crashed over under the posts to stretch the Lions lead once more and Biggar converted.

The Highlanders yet again replied instantly with a scintillating set-piece move which saw a drilled move ending in a powering driving maul which Coltman touched down off the back to score and Banks converted.

Banks then kept his cool to give the Super Rugby outfit a one point lead with a difficult kick to keep his good record going.


Owen Farrell replaced Biggar and instantly had a chance to regain the lead for the lions but his effort was far from close with is flying well wide of the posts.

Daly then had a huge 60 metre effort drop agonisingly short of the crossbar to deny the Lions a third tour win as the Super Rugby sides level the tour score to 2-2 over all.

The British and Irish Lions next face the Maori All Blacks on Saturday17 June in Rotorua.

The Highlanders: Meet the danger men from Dunedin

By Thomas Branston

The 2015 Super Rugby champions – the Highlanders

The British and Irish Lions continue their tour of New Zealand on Tuesday as they travel from Christchurch to Dunedin to face the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Due to players being unavailable because of Maori and All Blacks duty the Highlanders are missing some key players, however Tony Brown’s side still pose enough of a threat to challenge the British and Irish Lions.

There are five All Black capped players in the starting XV including Malakai Fekitoa but New Zealand Head Coach Steve Hansen has overseen the Highlanders centre from his 33-man squad for the test series.

The hosts have only lost four out of 14 games in 2017 and will finish fourth in the New Zealand conference of the competition but Brown’s side still have what it takes and I look into who will be standing out on your screens on Tuesday.

8. Luke Whitelock (C)


Younger brother to Crusaders lock Sam, Luke joined the Highlanders in 2016 from the Christchurch based club after biding his time behind Crusaders back row Kieran Read and moved away for regular first team rugby.

The 26-year-old is big, physical and resourceful. Whitelock is a tough player and will be at every breakdown causing havoc.

Expect to see him disrupt the Lions set piece throughout the game, he will be a big problem to Gatland’s plans so its crucial he is kept quiet.

Despite only one All Blacks cap, coming back in 2013 against Japan, you will see why he should have more to his name.

13. Malakai Fekitoa


A familiar face to the All Blacks squad but Fekitoa will not be featuring against the Lions after Tuesday’s game with New Zealand Head Coach Steve Hansen opting for the impressive Sonny Bill Williams.

The Tongan born New Zealander was part of both the All Blacks 2015 World Cup winning squad and the Highlanders Super rugby winning title side.

The Lions shouldn’t be fooled by his rare omission from the squad because Fekitoa will be fired-up and ready to cause destruction wherever he goes on the field.

The 25-year-old is a master of imposing the gain-line and is a savage at the breakdown, expect him to be all over the Lions backline.

Malakai Fekitoa joined the Highlanders from the Blues in 2014 and has made 60 appearances for the Super Rugby franchise.

14. Waisake Naholo


A powerful winger with sublime speed, Waisake Naholo was a member of the 2015 World cup winning squad with the All Blacks and won a Super Rugby title in his first year at the Highlanders after joining from the Blues.

Naholo has scored 21 tries in 32 appearances for the Dunedin based club and the Fijian born wing will pose a huge threat to the Lions defence.

He is a prolific scorer with a brilliant try record for both club and country and Warren Gatland’s men will need to work hard to shut him out, Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour will need to be hot on their heels to match his pace and experience.

7. Dillon Hunt


A 22-year-old on a fairytale journey. Dillon Hunt is a talented open-side flanker only made his debut for the Highlanders on March 11 against the Blues at Eden Park.

Since his rise from the University of Otago, Hunt was expecting to go on holiday, study and get ready for his clubs season with his University but with a number of injuries in his position the flanker managed to get a chance with the Highlanders in Preseason.

He is a physical, tough young prospect that the Highlanders are relishing, Hunt has also knocked on the door of the All Blacks with Steve Hansen keeping a close eye on the youngster.

Since then Hunt has enjoyed 11 appearances this season and has scored two tries.

10. Lima Sopoaga


Sopoaga has been named in the 33-man squad for the test series against the Lions and will be eager to impress after making only four appearances this season due to a hamstring injury.

The 26-year-old has six All Black caps and joined the Highlanders in 2011, scoring 687 points in 70 appearances.

The talented fly-half is a dangerous playmaker with phenomenal accuracy in his right foot.

The Highlanders will play a physical game with flowing, offloading rugby and Sopoaga will take any chances on getting points on the board should the Lions give him the opportunities.

6. Gareth Evans


The Highlanders squad has been hit hard by call-ups and injuries and Evans’ chance has come at the perfect time with the Lions coming to town.

The powerful back row steps in with Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon both absent.

He is extremely quick and you can expect to see him in the wide channels disrupting the Lions getting quick ball.


Highlanders vs the British and Irish Lions: All you need to know

By Thomas Branston


The British and Irish Lions travel to Dunedin to face the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Tuesday.

Warren Gatland’s Lions returned to winning ways against the unbeaten Super Rugby outfit BNZ Crusaders after suffering a surprise defeat to the Blues in Auckland last week.

After an improved performance with Gatland naming his strongest side yet, the British and Irish Lions are in search of a second consecutive win.

The Highlanders have seven players unavailable due to New Zealand and Maori All Blacks commitments, Liam Coltman, Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo have all been included in the starting XV.

Tony Brown’s side are ranked fourth out of the five New Zealand Super Rugby franchises in this year’s tournament but the 2015 champions have won 10 of their 14 matches and are assured of a playoff place.

The forwards are a strong suit for the Highlanders so the Lions can expect a tough set piece challenge, which Gatland’s side arguably haven’t faced yet.

Brown names a virtually unchanged starting pack from the side that were edged 25-22 by the Crusaders in their last Super Rugby match with only Jackson Hemopo and Dillon Hunt added.

Teihorangi Walden gets a rare start with Richard Buckman shifting to full-back and Sopoaga will start at fly-half which moves Marty Banks to the bench and sees Kayne Hammington make just only his second start of the season at scrum-half.


Sam Warburton returns to the starting XV and will captain the side as Gatland again rings the changes.

Joe Marler, Rory Best and Kyle Sinckler return to the front row after the defeat against the Blues and will have a tough challenge against a strong Highlander front row.

Courtney Lawes partners up with Iain Henderson with a back line which will see James Haskell, who will face his former club, CJ Stander and Warburton complete the forward pack.

Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar make up a Welsh partnership at halfback with Webb looking to match the performance of Conor Murray against the Crusaders.

Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph partner the midfield and will need to be creative against Teihorangi Walden and Malakai Fekitoa.

Tommy Seymour, Jared Payne and Jack Nowell make up the back three with Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Dan Cole, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Greig Laidlaw, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly make the bench.

Highlanders side to face the British and Irish Lions |


The British and Irish Lions side to face the Highlanders |