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.
This year though, with the Premiership league table looking so dangerously congested, I thought there were some step ups in energy levels which resulted in some big old clashes. There were definitely a few sides who looked like they had passed on the Quality Street.
Sale Sharks were a festive revelation with a big upset at a rammed Kingsholm Stadium. This game was meant to be the consolidation of Gloucester in the Top 4 and a chance for them to close the gap on the top two. Not quite how it turned out with Sale putting together a performance they have long threatened. Just how good is that back line of theirs with talent such as Faf De Klerk, James O Connor, Chris Ashton, Denny Solomona and the classy fly half De Preez. The Cherry & Whites started so well and maybe they thought after 20 minutes that they ‘had this’. This Sale Sharks side however is a very good one with a strong pack that has back rowers of the calibre of the Curry twins and Jono Ross. Their attack was also a thing of splendour with some lovely handling and running lines and they really deserved this victory. The off-field verbal spat involved DOR Steve Diamond and a journalist sadly has grabbed all the headlines but this Sale side have won away against a very good Gloucester team. With a wobbling Saracens heading up the M5 on Friday night Diamond is polishing up his team very nicely for a charge into the Top 4.
The cause of another Saracens wobble came this time from a team at the opposite end of the table to Exeter. Worcester Warriors were simply on fire at Allianz Park. I am sure the Worcester coaches would have wanted to bottle up and keep that first half particularly when they lead was an astonishing 0-14. However, as all good teams can do Saracens started to turn it around in the second half and slammed the door in the Warriors face whilst chalking up a couple of scores themselves. The final try was a lovely classy line run by veteran David Strettle who came onto a little double pump from Farrell. Overall Worcester deserved to get at least something from that game in terms of points but even so maybe they can at least take huge confidence from the performance which ran Sarries very close. Relegation candidates they may be but Worcester, like the others clustered around them, are a very decent Premiership side and too good for the drop.
There were a couple of ‘big games’ which pulled in the holiday crowds especially at Twickenham with over 80k pitching up for the Quins v Wasps battle. It turned into a niggly affair after an initial flash of power and speed from ex Uni boy Alex Dombrandt to score in the opening minute. Wasps were rocked in the first half and tempers and composure were lost. There were pushed and verbals along with an ankle stamp but with so much riding on this game neither side were giving an inch.
Wasps are having a bit of a rough time now with heaps of press speculation about players moving on and issues around the training ground. They are not quite clicking that is for sure and need some cavalry back. Joe Launchbury must be sorely missed in the engine room plus Jimmy Goppeth in the midfield to nurse the new Kiwi fly half gradually into the style of the Premiership. This loss to Quins sees them in a dizzying drop to the lower reaches of the table so Dai Young the likeable Wasps DOR will be hoping the New Year brings back some restored and fit men to help pull Wasps back up the ladder.
Bath also had a big leap up the table with a strong forward dominated display at their home ground securing them a valuable win. Leicester Tigers, like a few teams this weekend, had a storming start only to go on and lose the war with just the comfort of a losing bonus point. Bath are at last starting to look like the team they should be given the quality of their players. Throw in some of the missing stars such as Watson, Jospeh and Faletau and with their mind boggling high quality back row options I can see them staying in the top half and possibly picking off one of the Top 4 spots.
Back to relegation candidates and we saw why rugby pundits are struggling to see clear daylight between position 4 and 12 in the table. Newcastle still anchored to the bottom looked really good for their 7-point loss away to Bristol Bears who themselves do not look too shabby! With Newcastle showing strong signs of the side that finished in the Top 4 last year they are going to be turning over enough teams up at Kingston Park to ensure they are steering clear of 12th place. The Bears play such enterprising and attacking rugby with enough stardust in the form of players like Piatau that who on earth would pin the drop on them either.
So, as we enter 2019 there are some incredible plot lines alive and kicking from the closest battle to avoid relegation we have had for years to the Rugby World Cup and a riveting Six Nations in between. Bring it on as they say.