So here we are after Round 13 and just how good is it to say that there is still everything to play for. There was drama aplenty this weekend with some winning streaks and losing streaks and barnstorming Billy nailing down his England place whilst another threw his away. Yes I am looking at you Joe Marler.
Relegation candidates Worcester have impressively hauled themselves off the canvas in recent week and I suspect the Bath camp viewed their trip to Sixways with some nervousness. On the night however Bath were fantastic with coach Todd Blackadder delighted at how well his pack looked after the ball and gave the team some real front foot dominance. What a mighty old unit Bath forward James Philips is. Poor old Chris Pennell the Worcester full back will cringe when he sees the tape of his attempted tackle on Philips as he was casually bumped off flying back onto his backside.
Worcester to give them their due fought to the end and only just missed out once again on grabbing that try bonus point. If they had you could not have begrudged it but I feel it may also be time to adopt the French league law of only awarding a try bonus if you are 3 clear tries ahead. Many teams who are playing with a big lead relax and take their foot off the gas as conceding a try bonus point does not affect them However if could affect other teams so seems right that teams go the full 80 either to protect a bonus point or to take the bonus point away from the opposition.
I liked the look of new England call up Beno Obano who must surely have the most massive thighs in rugby! Beno is related to wunderkind Maro Itoje and looks as though one of them went upwards the other sideways. There could now be a vacancy at loosehead in Eddie Jone’s Six Nations squad so will be interesting to see if young Obano continues his rapid rise.
How surprising to see Leicester Tigers dominance of the league fading before our eyes. In my playing days they were the team to beat and were never less than powerful and destructive in the forwards. Their scraped win against bottom team London Irish was not vintage Leicester but the points were crucial to help them to start to scramble up the table and maybe we will see some confidence back in the side. It looks to me as if Tigers have assembled one of the classiest back lines in the league but ran out of money for the other half of the team. How they could do with some massive lumps to add to some of the finesse in the side. As talented as some of their forwards are it looks underpowered to me. London Irish played their part in this game and I was impressed with their defensive organisation and some of their attacking plays. You can’t quite write them off as there was a chance they could have pinched this game away at Welford Road which would have closed the gap on Worcester.
Franklins Gardens has not been a happy place with Northampton Saints on a woeful run of form. The visiting Cherry & Whites arrived with confidence and came so very close to coming away with the W.
However arrival of the wily and hugely experienced Alan Gaffney as head coach appears to have at least added some fight and steel to the Saints and it was a better performance from them. The highlight of the game for me was the sight of massive tighthead prop John Afoa running a hugely deft line to pick up a reverse pass off his knees and sail over for a try. I felt Glos were a bit unlucky with some fine margins in the game but how refreshing that at last you can see them go away and be really disappointed they only got a losing bonus.
There was a humdinger up at Sale Sharks which ended in a tight old victory for the home side. It was a great start from Sale who are quietly building a squad of some real quality. There were plenty of tries from both the Sharks and Quins and of course the red card incident with Joe Marler which was as clear cut as anything I have seen. It appeared he was responding to something from the Sale back rower but as we all know that is never accepted as an excuse. With his record Joe looks likely to be watching the Six Nations from his sofa.
There was another win in the North from a side quietly building a very fine side. Exeter arrived on an unbeaten streak of 7 games in the Premiership and found they were in a real contest. The Falcons played with panache and by half time looked totally in control. Exeter being Exeter came back into it and nearly sneaked a win or at least a losing bonus but the Falcons fly half booted over a final penalty to leave the Chiefs with nothing to show for that long trek north. My take away is firstly it shows every single team in this league is beatable and also there are definitely some strong signs that northern rugby is taking its rightful place at the top table. What odds would you have had for the two traditional West Midlands powerhouses Tigers and Saints half way through the season sitting below Sale and Newcastle in the league table?
Rumours of Saracens demise have been greatly exaggerated and with the return of the wrecking ball Billy Vunipola they sparked into life away to third placed Wasps. Billy was a marvel and it must have bought a smile to Eddie Jones to see his talisman Number 8 looking so good after such a lengthy lay off.
Wasps injury list is eye popping and although there is a bucket load of talent in the backline the real struggle is with the pack which is missing most of its first choices. This put paid to any possibility of Wasps getting their high class back line into the game and Sarries were in control even when down to 13 men at one point.
Now all eyes turn to Europe with the Champions and Challenge Cup back in what is likely to be a make or break round for the English sides. With only Bath heading up their pool and all the other sides 3rd or lower this is going to be knock out rugby next weekend. So buckle up and let’s see what the Aviva Premiership sides can pull out of the bag to nail one of those quarter final places.