As the Premiership takes yet another breather before the onslaught on European Games and the Six Nations there are still hot debates raging across everything from the laws to ringfencing.
My belief is that the Prem is stronger than ever with the marquee signings increasing the competiveness of all the sides and the reality being every single side genuinely has a chance to beat all of the others. Despite a feeling that the top 2 were breaking away and are in a league of their own I am not so sure. The Prem is a long slog and you can only play at full steam for so long before fatigue sets in. Both Exeter and Saracens have had to fight much harder than top teams in the past to beat lower placed league sides. No easy 5 pointers guaranteed at the moment.
It is however fantastic for us fans of the game and teams scrapping it out for every point brings an almost test match intensity to the club game. Not always in a good way if you just love to see the ball thrown around, but you can see the physicality and collisions are phenomenal. With four league games scheduled over the Six Nations points will be taken off everyone. Looking at the fixtures you could see Saracens losing at least a couple of games with what looks like the biggest contingent of England players absent as well as Liam Williams and Sean Maitland. The Tigers will suffer in their backline when over half of it is whisked away by England and with the sensational way George Ford has been performing that is going to be a loss.
This last week was also notable for leaked minutes from a Premiership Owners meeting which showed their determination to introduce ring fencing has not gone away. Certainly something needs to be done as currently the Prem is not profitable or self sustaining and has to be propped up by owners. As that is the case you probably have to ask the question why we are allowing one of the 12 to fall through the trapdoor every year hence wasting millions that were spent on getting them there. If we had the riches of football and the depth of sustainable clubs then it is a different conversation. The game needs to pull together to work towards building the support, fan base and sponsorship so that 14 teams can potentially compete and if there is relegation it is into a second fully professional league that had plenty of strong clubs.
We hardly have many teams in the Championship at the moment battering the door down with probably only three clubs with a realistic chance of competing in the Premiership so there is merit in locking down the Prem for a period. We would all miss relegation battles that is for sure but the club that does have to go – and this year it could be one of our only two northern clubs Newcastle – will lose millions of pounds plus key players and have to begin re-building all over again.
Not fence sitting on this as I see the argument from both sides. You want to encourage the magnificent ambitions of clubs like Cornish Pirates but I guess the core argument of relegation being great for the neutral fan and TV has to be balanced out with what is right for the growth and sustainability of our game right now.
As for the games themselves there is no doubt that the throat constricting tightness of the league is giving us some real belters. Sale Sharks are proving themselves to be absolute contenders for the top 4 with two wins on the bounce against good opposition. That back line of theirs makes me want to purr with its class, power and pace. The sensational Faf de Klerk is such box office and once again dominated a game. Saracens were off colour and horribly undisciplined throughout but Sale applied the pressure that caused errors and put the Champions on the back foot. It is true that the 50/50 calls did not go the visitor’s way but they needed to manage the ref and game better. Owen Farrell like Jonny Sexton is a passionate and fiery competitor but his handling of referees is not winning him the Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon.
There was definitely a much more cheery feeling amongst Tigers supporters after their 5 point grab of the points against a high flying Gloucester. It looks as if the Tigers have sorted out their defence at last and we saw much better shape and intensity to their defensive line plus a master at work at fly half in George Ford who one intercept pass apart was magisterial. Flat to the line or pulling passes back he was a buzzing threatening presence all game. I thought the Cherry & Whites actually played well in parts and indeed there were some cracking performances from the forwards with Freddie Clarke in particular really catching the eye. But how much do they miss Cipriani. No coincidence that since Danny’s injury Glos have looked less cohesive and lost their attacking flair. Owen Williams is a fine player but the chemistry is not there at the moment and as a backup fly half option he is not quite delivering. Gloucester now face Munster at home to see if they can pull off a couple of victories that would put them in with a sniff of a quarter final. If Cippers is back then I see no reason why Gloucester cannot pull off a win against the Munstermen.
It was a fine old win for Paul Gustard’s Harlequins away to Newcastle with some scintillating play from the Londoners. Quins are becoming a serious team once again but the Falcons were grounded with ease which should not be happening at Kingston Park. Newcastle suddenly look very vulnerable with the gap widening at the bottom of the league table. Their upcoming fixtures will not bring much comfort with 3 out of 4 of them away and in February having to travel to both Bath and Exeter. Lose these next two and Worcester snatch a win and the gap becomes distinctly uncomfortable. Early March sees what maybe Newcastle’s defining game when Worcester travel up to Kingston Park. Falcons’ fans nerves will be shredded. The upcoming Champions Cup games are now a serious test for Dean Richards with some tough decisions on what kind of a team he plays. Go for momentum or give everyone a holiday? Who would be a Director of Rugby!
Maybe it’s just co-incidence but all the teams facing big Champions Cup games this weekend seemed slightly off in this last round of league matches. Saracens, Bath and Gloucester and Newcastle all lost whilst Exeter really struggled to see off Bristol at home. Wasps with nothing at stake next week and Tigers with next to no chance did however both get the wins. Player’s minds perhaps a bit too focussed on the on the big cup? Could be....