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EXETER ENGINE STALLS IN GLOUCESTER AND SAINTS HIT SALE

There was no Six Nations for us to ponder the past weekend but there were plenty of talking points from what turned out, for some, to be a rusty resumption of the Gallagher Premiership.  It looked like the start of the season in many cases with teams who had had recent game time looking better prepared and sharper than those who had no meaningful games and had most of their boys sunning themselves in Dubai.

 

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MAY DAY, MAY DAY – FRANCE NEED HELP

Twickenham is a grand day out and on Sunday it was a sea of France  and England fans in high good humour and awash with expectations.  The Bollinger and Guinness tents were heaving and the sun was threatening to come out.  All set up then for another historic ‘Le Crunch’ game?  Sadly not - as Les Bleus sad to say were pretty shambolic.  Whilst showing flashes of sublime skills they were thoroughly outplayed, and outthought, by a totally dominant England side. The coaching seemed non existent and there were not enough leaders out on the pitch to extract any kind of control on the game.

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Sweet Chariot Powers Up and Wales with a First Half to Forget

There was an ad from a car maker that went out in Dublin before the game at the Aviva. It depicted a broken-down chariot with the wheels off and was a mighty fine joke and fun advert. However as someone pointed out it may have been better to have waited until after the game.  The England chariot was far from broken with the men in white driving full working bull dozers on Saturday afternoon at the Aviva.

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CLASH OF THE SIX NATIONS –RUGBY RIVALRY AT ITS BEST

If you are a rugby fan this is the time of the year that sparks more excitement, more debate, more heat and more passion than any other. Yep – it’s Six Nations time and boy I don’t think anyone can wait.

This competition which is looked on with envy by the rest of the rugby playing world, is by common agreement the best rugby tournament in the world. Why? It’s a mix of the history, the fierce rivalries and tribalism, the awesome away support and the way the fixtures change every year throwing up completely different challenges.

Whilst Ireland, quite rightly, are favourites there are potentially 4 other teams that could realistically nick it. Momentum and the order you play your home and away fixtures all help make the Six Nations ludicrously competitive. There is a reason back to back Grand Slams are rare and that is because they are bloody difficult to win. The last time it was done was by France way back in 1998 and the standard has not exactly fallen in that time. 

If you were going to back one nation to achieve the Slam, then of course it’s our Celtic cousins - the high flying Irish. They have a perfect blend of playing and coaching talent and now have the added ingredient of huge self-belief and confidence. The tiny question hanging over them is to do with their traditional slow starts where they are slightly vulnerable. This year however something feels different and I suspect having England park their tanks on the Aviva lawn may concentrate their minds beautifully with no motivation required. I hope Eddie’s game plan doesn’t just read ‘smash ‘em’ for this fixture as If England think they can just bull doze Ireland then they are wrong. Ireland’s defensive system is very clever, and their game plan means they keep possession and force you into errors. England may occasionally have success on the gainline but that won’t be enough to win. What is a worrying stat for England is their inability to score tries against Ireland and Andy Farrell of all people understands how you stop England.

For England overall, I have huge hopes for them to turn around their disastrous 2018 campaign and become one of the main challengers. It was revealing to read in a Paul Gustard interview an admission from the ex England coach that the coaching team had got it wrong last year and over trained the players going into the tournament. Lots of people thought the team looked sluggish and lacking in bite and intensity which given Eddie Jones’s notorious training sessions was not a total surprise. England fans will be hoping the squad are topping up their tans in Portugal this week rather than their bench press stats and will start the tournament with the energy and physicality that was lacking in the previous campaign.

A lot will be pinned on England’s returning star players but reasons to be cautious are their lack of game time. Billy Vunipola is undoubtedly a crucial man for England at his best. He has played however just three games and in his own words has said he is not quite back to his best. The series of broken arms are understandably playing on the big number 8’s mind and you can see if you watched those come- back games how he is not playing with the same bull dozing intensity. The hope is that he is building up to it and he is definitely showing signs of his confidence returning.

Manu Tuilagi is another where huge expectations have to be tempered with the knowledge the poor lad has been away from International test rugby for a staggering 7 years. He has been showing tantalising glimpses of Manu circa 2012 at Leicester but will he be able to deliver in the white-hot atmosphere in Dublin? With Ben Te’o out it is looking like he is going to get his chance and what a stage for him to announce his return. So, there are reasons to be cheerful or at least hopeful for England fans especially with the outstanding form of Maro Itoje and the reuniting of the Vunipola brothers. England of course can win in Dublin and I am sure Ireland do not believe they just have to turn up to win. It should be close but Ireland’s game management, structure and lack of errors gives them the right to feel confident of the victory.

Wales coach Warren Gatland has ditched the faux modesty and humbleness and stated if Wales beat France in Paris on Friday night they will win the competition. Bold claim but I would be inclined to go along with that given Wales have their two other strongest rivals visiting them in the bear pit of the Millennium stadium. Ireland and England’s record at the Cardiff stadium is patchy and this is a very fine Wales squad on a very good run of their own. Forget European form here as the Welsh regions’ performance rarely impacts on the national side. To balance out that optimism for Wales there are a few injuries to key men that just might derail the red dragon. Halfpenny is their kicking go to man with his dead eye and nerves helping Wales many a time to get over the line and Faletau at number 8 is a big old loss. But like a lot of the other tournament sides their depth has increased and canny old Warren Gatland has built a team that is a true contender. 

Scotland would have looked at the 2019 fixtures and thought – we like that! The vagaries of the schedule have given Scotland a gentle start with the visit of Italy to Murrayfield. The best bit is they are at home again the second week and welcome Ireland. Ireland at Murrayfield is never a given with some rare old battles played out in the capital and Ireland know there is the potential to come out on the wrong side. I like this Scotland side and despite a few blows on the injury front they will be strong and passionate and fired up when it all kicks off in Edinburgh. If their quicksilver fly half Finn Russell can add some control to his wonderful game then they are capable of pulling teams apart. They will have a big say in where the trophy heads with a chance to derail hopes in both Dublin and Wales.

Whilst Italy are finally showing under Connor O Shea signs of getting their act together it is sadly at a time when all the other nations have raised their game. It has been marvellous to see Treviso ramp up the gears and become a threat in the Pro 14. Their game last weekend against Ulster away in Ireland, with most of their star names off with Italy, showed just how much the Italians are improving. It’s a slow process but is the right one. Conner has addressed the fundamentals in Italy getting the structures and pathways right which has already resulted in a very good and competitive U20’s side.  I believe Italy appointed the right man to overhaul the game and put it on the right path towards being more competitive at Tier 1 level. It will take time and this Six Nations is a little soon. A couple of key men in a paper-thin squad will not help the Italian cause but expect them to really compete at home. Their attack looks miles better albeit if I was the Italian Federation I would be getting the cheque book out for a top class defence coach,

As for Les Bleus - what can we say? We are all a little bored of repeating each year ‘which French team will turn up’ but infuriatingly we have to ask the same question every year. It has never been more true for 2019 with a squad selected that looks like it was picked using a lucky dip. There is, as usual, so much talent still in there and I like the way France have thrown in some of their U20 World Cup winners. There issue is lack of consistent selection and no experienced spine of the team. With the half backs on a constant merry go round and players hardly given one season to bed down in the team it is little wonder no one is backing them to go on and win the tournament. Of course they can, and I am sure they will, have a say and no more so than on the opening fixture in Paris against Wales.

My guess is there will be no Grand Slam this year and we could even have Ireland, Wales and England all losing one game bringing it down to points difference as we did in that manic last Saturday a few years ago when teams threw away their playbook and just went for tries. That, my friends, is the magic of the Six Nations. You just never know what you are going to get.

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ENGLAND LEAVERS, IRELAND REMAINERS AND DUBLIN AWAITS

This must be a heady time to be an Irish fan with the wonderful success of all the provinces in Europe about to carry the national side on a huge wave of momentum into the Six Nations.

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EDINBURGH KINGS OF THE CASTLE AND EXETER NOW ON THE HUNT

What are we to make of the lack of English teams qualifying – crisis or not?  Before we ruminate too deeply on the meaning of this and relative strengths and weaknesses of the different leagues it is worth noting a couple of points.  To win the Champions Cup requires an almost single minded determination and focus that both the French and English teams lack en masse.  We know it is Saracens’ focus and it has seen them be spectacularly successful in Europe.  I am not sure any Tigers, Bath, Gloucester or Wasps fans got too  busy booking up accommodation in Newcastle for the final..  The tightness of this year’s Premiership has also muddied the waters with no nice easy games to relax a bit and build for a big Euro game.

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RINGFENCING,  SHARK ATTACK AND MIND THE GAP

As the Premiership takes yet another breather before the onslaught on European Games and the Six Nations there are still hot debates raging across everything from the laws to ringfencing.

My belief is that the Prem is stronger than ever with the marquee signings increasing the competiveness of all the sides and the reality being every single side genuinely has a chance to beat all of the others.  Despite a feeling that the top 2 were breaking away and are in a league of their own I am not so sure.  The Prem is a long slog and you can only play at full steam for so long before fatigue sets in.  Both Exeter and Saracens have had to fight much harder than top teams in the past to beat lower placed league sides.  No easy 5 pointers guaranteed at the moment. 

It is however fantastic for us fans of the game and teams scrapping it out for every point brings an almost test match intensity to the club game.  Not always in a good way if you just love to see the ball thrown around,  but you can see the physicality and collisions are phenomenal.  With four league games scheduled over the Six Nations points will be taken off everyone.  Looking at the fixtures you could see Saracens losing at least a couple of games with what looks like the biggest contingent of England players absent as well as Liam Williams and Sean Maitland.  The Tigers will suffer in their backline when over half of it is whisked away by England and with the sensational way George Ford has been performing that is going to be a loss. 

This last week was also notable for leaked minutes from a Premiership Owners meeting which showed their determination to introduce ring fencing has not gone away.  Certainly something needs to be done as currently the Prem is not profitable or self sustaining and has to be propped up by owners.  As that is the case you probably have to ask the question why we are allowing one of the 12 to fall through the trapdoor every year hence wasting millions that were spent on getting them there.  If we had the riches of football and the depth of sustainable clubs then it is a different conversation.  The game needs to pull together to work towards building the support, fan base and sponsorship so that 14 teams can potentially compete and if there is  relegation it is  into a second fully professional league that had plenty of strong clubs.

We hardly have many teams in the Championship at the moment battering the door down with probably only three clubs with a realistic chance of competing in the Premiership so there is merit in locking down the Prem for a period.  We would all miss relegation battles that is for sure but the club that does have to go – and this year it could be one of our only two northern clubs Newcastle –  will lose millions of pounds plus key players and have to  begin re-building all over again. 

Not fence sitting on this as I see the argument from both sides. You want to encourage the magnificent ambitions of clubs like  Cornish Pirates  but I guess the core argument of relegation being great for the neutral fan and TV has to be balanced out with what is right for the growth and sustainability of our game right now. 

As for the games themselves there is no doubt that the throat constricting tightness of the league is giving us some real belters.  Sale Sharks are proving themselves to be absolute contenders for the top 4 with two wins on the bounce against good opposition.  That back line of theirs makes me want to purr with its class, power and pace.  The sensational Faf de Klerk is such box office and once again dominated a game.  Saracens were off colour and horribly undisciplined throughout but Sale applied the pressure that caused errors and put the Champions on the back foot.  It is true that the 50/50 calls did not go the visitor’s way but they needed to manage the ref and game better.  Owen Farrell like Jonny Sexton is a passionate and fiery competitor but his handling of referees is not winning him the Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon.

There was definitely a much more cheery feeling amongst Tigers supporters after their 5 point grab of the points against a high flying Gloucester.  It looks as if the Tigers have sorted out their defence at last and we saw much better shape and intensity to their defensive line plus a master at work at fly half in George Ford who one intercept pass apart was magisterial.  Flat to the line or pulling passes back he was a buzzing threatening presence all game.  I thought the Cherry & Whites actually played well in parts and indeed there were some cracking performances from the forwards with Freddie Clarke in particular really catching the eye.  But how much do they miss Cipriani.  No coincidence that since Danny’s injury Glos have looked less cohesive and lost their attacking flair.  Owen Williams is a fine player but the chemistry is not there at the moment and as a backup fly half option he is not quite delivering.  Gloucester now face Munster at home to see if they can pull off a couple of victories that would put them in with a sniff of a quarter final.  If Cippers is back then I see no reason why Gloucester cannot pull off a win against the Munstermen.

 It was a fine old win for Paul Gustard’s Harlequins away to Newcastle with some scintillating play from the Londoners.  Quins are becoming a serious team once again but the Falcons were grounded with ease which should not be happening at Kingston Park.  Newcastle suddenly look very vulnerable with the gap widening at the bottom of the league table.   Their upcoming fixtures will not bring much comfort with 3 out of 4 of them away and in February having to travel to both Bath and Exeter.  Lose these next two and Worcester snatch a win and the gap becomes distinctly uncomfortable.  Early March sees what maybe Newcastle’s defining game when Worcester travel up to Kingston Park.  Falcons’ fans nerves will be shredded.  The upcoming Champions Cup games are now a serious test for Dean Richards with some tough decisions on what kind of a team he plays.  Go for momentum or give everyone a holiday?  Who would be a Director of Rugby!

Maybe it’s just co-incidence but all the teams facing big Champions Cup games this weekend seemed slightly off in this last round of league matches.   Saracens, Bath and Gloucester and Newcastle all lost whilst Exeter really struggled to see off Bristol at home.  Wasps with nothing at stake next week and Tigers with next to no chance did however both get the wins.  Player’s minds perhaps a bit too focussed on the on the big cup? Could be....

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RINGFENCING, SHARK ATTACK AND MIND THE GAP

As the Premiership takes yet another breather before the onslaught on European Games and the Six Nations there are still hot debates raging across everything from the laws to ringfencing. 

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DIAMOND’S SHARKS SHINE AND THE BATTLE OF THE DROP HEATS UP

Christmas and the New Year is always a funny old time for rugby with matches often offering all the excitement of a stale mince pie. As professional as the players are - the mix up in routine experienced over the Christmas period will have an effect. Add in the parties raging all around and food and drink temptations challenging will power to record breaking levels - it’s not much of a surprise that sometimes performances are tinged with a little sluggishness.

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ENGLISH SIDES SLIDING OUT OF EUROPE BUT SCOTS MARCH ON

As the dust is settling on rugby pitches across Europe, we can take a deep breath and start to see the potential quarter finalists coming into view. Sadly it looks as though Wasps and Leicester have nothing to play for and Exeter, Gloucester and Newcastle will need big, big round 5 and 6 performances to go through.

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GLOS TAKE BIG SCALP, BATH RUN LEINSTER CLOSE AND WELSH DIP

Gloucester managed to upset all the bookies with a scintillating victory down in Sandy Park in a game where they were on top of the home side. The Exeter Chiefs are quite rightly admired across the land as one of the best teams in the Premiership and had set out their stall before the start of the season. Rob Baxter stated quite firmly that this season was the time for Exeter to be a serious challenger in the Heineken Cup. It is that publically announced ambition which makes Exeter’s set of results in the competition look quite alarming.

 

THE R WORD, TIGERS RED FACED AND EXETER CHOPPED DOWN
THE R WORD, TIGERS RED FACED AND EXETER CHOPPED DOWN

Calculators are already out for this season’s Premiership totting up points required to avoid the dreaded drop. It seems quite mad that the majority of teams in the league are sitting much closer to relegation than they are to Top 4.  From 5th to 12th no one is actually safe.

It is showing the strength of Exeter and Saracens that no one is taking points off them just a sneaky 2 taken away from Chiefs by Quins which is about as good as it has got for the rest of the chasing teams. It also shows quite clearly that all the teams from 3rd to 12th place are actually relatively strong being able to take points off each other despite struggling for consistency.

Interesting weekend’s results with three big traditional powerhouses of rugby Bath, Leicester and Northampton all losing to less established sides. It is going to be a bun fight this year and already there are whispers in the corridors of power about ring fencing and I suspect a lot of very, very nervous club owners are desperately trying to get this up and running by the end of May next year.

There are arguments on both sides about relegation and I do have sympathy with club owners who have invested millions of their own money in trying to grow the game and yet whatever they do someone has to go down. In a tight season featuring just 12 teams it could be someone relegated on points difference - so one missed penalty or a ruled out try could turn out to be calamitous. And yet - relegation gives this league bite and interest forcing teams to dig deep and play under huge pressure. More dead rubbers is not going to bring the fans flocking. Maybe the answer is to drop the Premiership Cup competition and increase to a 14 man league. This would bring the most competitive teams into the Premiership and mean everyone has to still fight to stay up whilst reducing the jeopardy. The Championship absolutely needs to still be given a crack at the big time but perhaps a play off with the team finishing bottom would be the way to ensure the team coming up is sufficiently strong. 

The league leaders Exeter hit a very slight road bump on Friday night. With the returning Internationals putting their feet up the Chiefs sent a team up to London missing some star names. The road bump turned out surprisingly to the Harlequins. The team mixing it at the bottom of the table and struggling to get points suddenly looked as if all the pieces suddenly clicked firmly in place. London’s supposed fancy dans played with a hardnosed defensive effort that put all kinds of pressure on Exeter. Gustard is starting to see some real return from the undoubted massive focus he has put on the defence and indeed it was ‘Wolfpack’ like in its intensity and execution. 

Exeter Chiefs would not have been too worried - as shorn of some big stars they still were able to come away with a couple of points tucked under their shirts. Exeter’s tried and very trusty go to weapon - the 5m line out and rolling maul - proved as effective as ever and indeed was the only weapon that worked for them. Quins line speed cut off virtually every attacking opportunity and meant the Chiefs had to rely on Quins giving away penalties to give them kicks for territory.

Quins played some smart rugby in the second half. Recognising that the equally efficient Exeter defence was also cutting off their attack Quins eventually started to put more kicks through. I felt in the first half Quins should have kicked a bit more as they were often playing out of their own half and were always in danger of letting Chiefs into the game with a penalty kick to the corner. One player creating a stir is Quins forward James Dombrandt. Fresh from University the 21 year old looks the real deal and put in a barnstorming performance that has already seen him being touted as a dark horse for the World Cup!

Gloucester are certainly doing their level best to make a statement this premiership season, and 9 games in they are doing very nice job of it. The tables tell all the story you need to know about Gloucester being the “best of the rest”, as the only team outside of the top two that have had less than 200 points put past them and a comfortable lead in the “for” column as well. This shows a real cohesion of the team this season and actually gives the Cherry and White faithful something to cheer about! We’ve been in this table position in many previous seasons, but often thanks to some iffy results elsewhere and a couple of scalps that maybe should not have occurred, but this season, you can well and truly say that they deserve the spot!

As for Saturday’s game against Worcs, it is always a pleasure to watch the local Derby’s and with the exception of the deep-rooted rivalry between Gloucester and Bath, there is nothing like the Warriors game to get the blood pumping. It was a crackerjack of a game and although there was the expectation that the away team may have been on the receiving end of a ‘thumping’ they actually held Gloucester admirably, with just one point to split the teams at the rest, but magic happened in the second half; Gloucester made good on the warriors losing Chris Pennell and punished the remaining 14 men and crossed the wash four more times in the second half.

Had it not been for an “average” Cipriani performance (let’s not forget the average Cipriani, is very good for everyone else) then Gloucester could have been angling for a cricket score by the end of the game, but Worcester have proved time and again this season that they are not to be trifled with in defence, only letting in 16 more points than Gloucester over the first nine games. Had Worcester been able to field Hougaard and Te’o in this game, it could well have been a different story.

Special mention must go to Charlie Sharples, who is cutting loose with the tries and managed to rack up another one on Saturday to put him joint leader on touchdowns so far this season. Hats off to that boy, footwork, pace and vision”

A slightly threadbare Wasps would have pitched up at Allianz Park with more hope than expectation but as often happens when the pressure is off they put in a sterling effort. It looks like their defence is finally working for them but their attack surprisingly failed to spark. The Saracens attack also spluttered and although they never looked seriously under pressure Wasps made them work for their points and it meant the home side failed this time to collect their customary try bonus point. I liked how the Wasps scrum stood up and it was great to see Nathan Hughes once again thundering around bashing holes in the defence. With the amount of walking wounded Wasps have at the moment I am sure there is some quiet confidence that a fuller strength side will soon be putting the frighteners on some very good teams.

The Rec in Bath is one of the prettiest places to play rugby but the surroundings did not transfer to the game when bottom strugglers Sale arrived in town. It was a game neither side wanted to lose and demonstrated the point that relegation does not always give you excitement - Bath and Sale slugging it out to a 7 all draw. Those two points Bath squeezed out from a turgid performance however shot them up the table in this crazy season.

It was good news for Newcastle who picked up a last gasp win at Franklins Gardens to stun the home crowd. Mark Wilson - who you just want to drape a red cape around and be done with it - was the hero with an 87 minute try. That win got the Falcons home by a couple of points but more importantly sprang them off the bottom of the table. Mark Wilson’s 2018 is the stuff dreams are made of.

It has become mesmerising, in the same way a car crash is, to watch Leicester Tigers implode. Geordan Murphy looks set to be appointed head coach permanently and I genuinely hope the guy is given a bucket load of support from the Board of Directors to turn things around. The pack to me just has to be strengthened to enable the multi skilled backs a chance to play the ball. It was sad to see quality half backs like Ford and Youngs simply unable to control the game with no front foot ball. Tigers for relegation? It could happen. Bristol Bears benefitted from a red card dished out to Kyle Eastmond which was one of the rare ones where there seems to be no debate – looked horrible and clearly under the current interpretations if was ‘off with you my son’. However Bristol would have won this game anyway and just looked hungrier, more intense and more likely to score throughout the whole match.