So the pine needles have been hovered up the last of the mince pies eaten and the kids are bored with their games. Hey ho time to switch our focus back to the important things in life!
The Aviva Premiership is the gift that keeps giving. As Eddie Jones would say ‘more drama than an episode of Eastenders.’ .
First off - the sacking earlier this week of Leicester Tigers legend Richard Cockerill. A Tigers man all the way through and a good bloke - you won’t meet anyone more passionate about the game or their team.
My take on it is that Cockers ‘‘old school’ coaching was starting to fall on deaf ears in the changing room and training pitch. From all the information I am hearing the confrontational and shouty style was becoming self defeating. Players have changed a lot in the last 10 years and approach their job professionally. In my time there were still quite a few forwards who warmed up before a game by banging their head against the wall but now it is more isotonic drink and a touch of match analysis.
So maybe not a total surprise the Leicester board decided to change things but probably a bit surprising that it was mid season. Kiwi and ex Tiger Aaron Mauger was bought in a season ago to improve the Tigers attack and I guess on paper it seemed a good partnership with Cockers. It appears however the two coaches were so far apart in coaching philosophy and styles that they could not even see each other’s planets. Mauger has been given the gig for the moment with search on for a new Rugby Director. With other DOR’s in the Prem also looking slightly vulnerable we could be in for a game of coaching merry go round. I am pretty sure there a few teams who would snap up Cockers and that could release others onto the market.
So it will be all rugby eyes on the Ricoh stadium come this weekend when Tigers have to face top of the table and a fully firing Wasps team. As you will have seen with Bristol after a coach is sacked it often boosts a club. It pulls everyone together, creates a stronger team mentality and fires everyone up. Tigers we know with the right head on can put in big performances as they did against Munster at home after being trounced out in Limerick. I don’t think they played badly against Saracens and certainly dominated the scrum which is not one of Wasps strong points.
As for Wasps. Blimey. They are playing some pretty sublime stuff those fancy boy backs. The mantra seems to be ‘don’t care how many you score we will score more.’ Defence to be honest has not been great but has not mattered a jot so far as bonus point wins ratchet up their points total. The balance may not be quite there between attack and defence but my goodness aren’t Wasps fun to watch.
My big question for the coaching team is how they play the big knock out games. Talent unquestionably is there in abundance with the squad they have assembled but hardnosed knock out rugby delivers its own pressures and attack on its own often is not enough.
As for the clash I do think Wasps will win again just because their sheer brilliance in attack will mean the slightest mistake from Tigers will be exploited.
Tigers however will be mean in defence and snarling in the set piece and who knows with the new law changes we could see teams down to 13 men at any stage.
Other drama has got to be the relegation battle. I would not have had Sale Sharks swimming around that area fo the table at the start of the season but that loss at home against Bristol has sent them plunging to murky depths. Bristol is on the fight back and although it still looks unlikely there is now a glimmer for them.
You may remember Leeds a few years goo. As good as gone from the top division. Suddenly they put together a winning streak and cling on to Premiership status. Bristol have been hugely competitive unlike London Welsh last year who were being inked in weeks before by coaches across the Prem as a 5 pointer. Bristol should have won their opening game against Quins at Twickenham in all reality. They then lost such an influential player in Gav Henson that they struggled to replace. Further injuries to fly halves handicapped them as did other injuries to key names. Jason Woodward (English qualified by the way) has been brilliant since he came on board. A real talent and with the return of injured players I would say Bristol have a good chance of staying up meaning Worcester, Sale and even Gloucester starting to get very twitchy.
Gloucester this weekend face the neighbours Worcester which for both teams is taking on a whole new significance. Gloucester’s maddening inconsistency must be tough for coaches and fans alike especially when they look at the quality names on the team sheet. The Cherry & White losses are generally close games which they just do not see out which is hugely frustrating. You know it can’t take much to turn those L’s into W’s but finding what exactly it is that is needed is the difficult bit. Over to you David Humphreys.
The Worcester lads put in a great shift against Quins to secure a good win which given Bristol also won must have been a stress relieving victory. As for Quins a totally inexplicably bad away record continues. As in most streaks good or bad it is about momentum. Quins are now so terrified of losing yet again on the road that they can’t find a way to win. Teams also sniff vulnerability and think they have a chance with Quins at home which boosts the home team confidence as so the cycle continues.
First came up that I will be watching with interest is Bath up to Newcastle. The Falcons story is developing nicely up in the North East. I like what Dean Richards has done for the team up there and the new pitch seems to have helped bring on the attack side of their game. Last week’s game against Wasps was incredible and only some individual bits of attacking skill from Wasps allowed them to claw their way back in and win it... Bath will enjoy the surface up there a bit more than they used to and so we could be in for another high scoring thriller. Really looking forward to also getting a look at Bath’s young Zach Mercer at 8. Bit of a talent that one so watch out for him.
Exeter Chiefs this weekend could put together a pretty remarkable run of victories with one of the toughest set of fixtures taking on Tigers, Bath and Saracens in consecutive weeks. With the first two chalked off it will be fascinating to see if Rob Baxter’s men can spring a surprise on a Saracens side missing a lot of its muscle with both Vunipolas and George Kruis on the sick list.
Let play commence then but let’s hope players remember to keep those tackles low or we could end up with some very strange results this weekend!