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.
Rugby Directors will have mixed reactions to this block of 4 league games played throughout the Six Nations tournament. Those proffering up swathes of international players to the national cause will be praying the absent stars are not too sorely missed whilst other DOR’s will be seeing this as the perfect opportunity for a smash & grab. As often is the case scheduling will come in to play with Gloucester striking lucky by playing both Exeter and Saracens in this block. Other teams around Glos will get either both or at least one of the top two when back to full power so getting these couple of fixtures out of the way now is an upside for the Cherry & Whites.
It was an advantage that Gloucester made the most of on Friday night in a thoroughly entertaining game of rugby where they won the bragging rights over the league leaders Exeter. Exeter were gritty in defence and stuck to task throughout the game and with Gloucester fluffing their lines on several occasions, with the try line begging, it meant the game stayed tighter throughout than it should have done.
Young Ollie Thorley had another blinder and is turning heads all over the country. It is a mix of his out and out speed and explosive power that makes him a threat, but he also reads the game well and is brilliant in the air. There was a lovely handoff in the match where the poor Chiefs player’s attempted tackle was just swatted aside by Ollie like he was an U11. It was, however, Gloucester’s forwards who I thought deserved the biggest pat on the head as they brought the necessary physicality onto the pitch and even held out a final siege on their line through over 15 phases right at the end of the game. Big Ben Morgan is surely back to his best and should either Billy or Nathan Hughes pick up a knock surely Eddie has to take a look. I can see in the past why Ben was not making Eddie’s squads with consistency and work rate probably still on the ‘To Do’ list. However injury free and improving all the time Ben is a genuinely good option for the Red Rose.
Gloucester to me look like a side with all the pieces clicking into place and with the addition of Springbok second row monster Mostert they have added a gem to the forward pack to lay an attacking platform for the skills of Cipriani and his genuinely thrilling back line. Is this Gloucester’s year? If it is - then about time too!
Super Rugby started this week but not just in the Southern Hemisphere as Northampton Saints went all speed, skills and offloading on us. The Saints game plan and sheer verve caught Sale napping and It was a massacre at the Gardens and a record win that included just the 11 tries.
The new Saints DOR Chris Boyd seems to be getting all his ducks in a row now and getting his talented squad to play some scintillating rugby. One thing a new DOR can do is come in with a fresh look at players and ignore reputation and seniority to pick who he likes the look of. That Saints side has some extremely good youngsters in it with a few good Fijian shaped signings adding punch and weight, The tries came so thick and fast for Northampton that the highlights will need to be extended to fit them all in.
One to forget for Sale who had, on paper, a very strong side. They are better than that and it was a day when they seemed nowhere near the race course let alone the race. Bearing in mind their last league game when they beat a nearly full strength Saracens we know they can play. Their talisman Faf de Klerk in an attempt to claw Sale back into the game almost did too much and as a result the structure went out the window. Not helped by a returning fly half who has had very little game time under his belt the Sharks floundered badly in defence.,
Newcastle are wobbling very badly now and have the long trip down to Exeter to contemplate this weekend. The only clink of light is their chance to beat closest rival Worcester in what could be a relegation decider which is the next home game for the Falcons. If they can win this one it might keep them in with a chance of avoiding the trap door. They were not bad against Bath and it was the same old story of accuracy overall that let them down. With just a few too many key players still on the physio bench Deano’s men struggled.
Bath will be delighted with the bonus point win and may now be able to start glancing upwards towards top half. Joe Cokanasiga gave us all a taste of what Eddie Jones sees in him with a beast of a game particularly in the second half when he saw more ball. With Chris Ashton ruled out with injury for the Wales came we could see him unleashed in Cardiff.
Newcastle’s fellow stragglers Worcester had the misfortune to meet a Quins side that is transforming rapidly into a potent attacking and defensive unit under Paul Gustard. The England boys not wanted at Twickenham are all doing the best thing possible and showing Eddie Jones just what he might be missing out on. Quins traditionally struggle without their England boys but with just Kyle Sinckler missing they must be relishing having the likes of Joe Marler and the multi capped internationals Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care at the Stoop.
There were a few raised eyebrows at the score from Allianz Park at half time as both teams missing star names tested their strength in depth. Leicester will be very cross with themselves for missing out here as the game was close up until the very end where Saracens nicked a couple of cheeky scores to pump up the scoreboard. Saracens did overall look the better side and stuck to a game plan which meant apart from one lovely score from Jonah Holmes it denied the visitors much opportunity to add to that. One good thing about these periods is the opportunity it gives young guys who would not normally get near the match day squad. With Saracens opting to not use Liam Williams and moving Alex Goode to fly half (what can’t that boy do!) there was a chance for academy lad Matt Gallagher at full back. Matt son of the legendary All Black John had a stormer of a game both aerially and in attack and whilst he may find himself 3rd or 4th choice full back in the big games I can see him getting a lot more time in that 15 shirt.
Another England international albeit one with just the 10 minutes under his belt – made his presence felt against Bristol Bears. Wasps scrum half Dan Robson looked sharp and added a controlling influence on his side to help them raid the cookie jar at Ashton Gate. A bonus point win in any away game is always satisfying especially at Bristol where they can be so dangerous. Bristol after a poor start rallied and looked as if they could fight back and take the spoils but had to be content with the losing bonus which helps grow that gap between them and the dreaded 12th place.
Rugby fans everywhere will be relishing this next round of Six Nations fixtures with sub plots all over the place. England travel to Cardiff for what is being touted as a Grand Slam decider - which whilst I understand why it would be - does not consider both England and Wales have tricky fixtures still to come after this game. There are no givens in rugby and England will remember the last time they went to Cardiff to decide a Grand Slam. The passion and energy levels will be off the scale for this one and it has all the makings of a classic.