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.