Relegation Dogfight and the London Fight Club
The Six Nations is all over and the relentlessness of the Gallagher Premiership was shown clearly this last weekend as tired returning internationals were shoved straight back into the starting fifteen.
Unfortunately for Leicester Tigers - a club I have grown up admiring, respecting and at times fearing - the cavalry was not enough. With George Ford, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Dan Cole back in harness you were expecting a big performance but Northampton Saints on the Tigers home patch caused misery and mayhem all afternoon. Despite George Ford’s manful efforts the rest of the team struggled and they slipped to yet another home defeat. Could the unthinkable happen and Tigers get relegated? The answer is clearly a resounding yes. They have three home games which gives them a fighting chance but their visitors are Exeter, Bristol and Bath. The Bath game is the last of the season and if you are old enough to remember the glory days of Bath and Leicester rivalries wouldn’t it be ironic if it was the Bath men who knocked Tigers out of top flight rugby. My view is however that Tigers will just survive and it will still be between Newcastle and Worcester with Worcester having tougher home fixtures so looking slightly more vulnerable. It does not rule out Tigers completely as relegation battles bring out the nerves in the most composed of players and this is unknown territory for Leicester. Their crunch fixture is going to be against Newcastle up at Kingston Park. Win this and the spectre of relegation recedes. Lose it without a bonus point and panic could set in.
Both Newcastle and Worcester managed to secure crucial points but effectively neither gained much advantage over each other. Both teams did however narrow the gap on a couple of teams above them with Tigers and Bristol pulled into the darker recesses of the table to add to the uncertainty swirling around just who is going to end up in the drop zone.
Gloucester my old club are sitting happily at the top end of the table and things are looking good for the cherry & whites. That bit of South African steel in the forwards combined with the classy backs that Glos have had for a while is proving to be pretty potent. What a signing Cipriani has proved to be and all of Gloucester will be hoping he will put his signature on a new contract to stay at Kingsholm. With him at the helm marshalling a very strong set of forwards Glos can take on anyone. They have already beaten Exeter and Sarries this year so dreams of a trophy are not pie in the sky.
Wasps another club dear to my heart were the visitors to Kingsholm and got off to a flyer but then things unravelled and Glos happily banked the points to put them comfortably in the play off places. As for Wasps such is the tightness of this season’s league they are only 8 points off the bottom and 3 points away from Heineken Cup Rugby next season. The club seems to have off field issues and are in a wobbly old period for them. The fixture list does not look particularly kind to them for the last 5 games so they will be have the hot breath of relegation on the back of their necks too.
Referee JP Doyle had an interesting afternoon at the London Stadium on Saturday with his decision making. I suspect at referee review time some of those decisions will be discussed. Not necessarily because they were wrong but because they were certainly not clear cut. Billy Vunipola’s superb angled run which brushed aside JP Doyle was adjudged to affected Robshaw’s ability to tackle Billy. Watching closely it looked more like the gap was created by Horwill being out of position and Robshaw was cutting across to fill the gap whilst seeing the danger of the rampaging Billy. The fact he could not get hold of Billy might have had more to do with the power and velocity of the number 8 than any perceived unsighting. The other decision involving a niggly scuffle on one side of the pitch causing a try by David Strettle to be ruled out was another where technically you could make a case but it seems a shade pedantic. The scuffle was part of a generally very niggly game as is becoming increasingly normal between Quins and Saracens. These two teams really do not like each other and as much as no one wants to see nastiness on the pitch it did create a pretty feisty and entertaining match!
Meanwhile business as normal for league leaders Exeter who despite their returning internationals still probably covered in Six Nations bruises they showed their usual mettle in overcoming a very good looking Bath side. The wrecking ball Joe Cokanasiga was well marshalled and could not make the difference for Bath who although they started well let the game slip away. Exeter are now qualified for the play offs and looking home and hosed for the number one seed. It will be interesting whether Baxter can keep his side focussed on the last five games to ensure they keep top spot. Mentally it is tough to play games with not an awful lot riding on them but Baxter will be aware that momentum plays a part and he will no doubt demand of his players.