With European tournaments continuing this weekend and six rounds of the Aviva Premiership gone, the league table has a familiar look to it at the very top and perhaps the predicted look to it at the very bottom. However these opposing pictures do not tell the story of what has been an enthralling and unpredictable start to the new season in England.
Saracens take their accustomed place at the head of the table although they only rose to top spot after last week’s round of games beating the previous leaders – Wasps – to usurp them in No.1 position. The Champions have been impressive, if not outstanding, in the early part of the season. Their opening weekend victory over Worcester was achieved without really getting out of second gear and they have been slowly going about their business with the loss to Harlequins in round four the only blip in their progress. They give the impression that they were saving their best for the games when they absolutely needed it and the match against Wasps at Allianz Park showed just why they have been the dominant force in England and Europe over the past few seasons.
Wasps had made the most impressive start to the campaign up until last week’s defeat. They had played some sparkling rugby and scored some scintillating tries and the newly formed partnership between Danny Cipriani and Jimmy Goperth at 10 and 12 had been the find of the year. No doubt these teams will meet again at the sharp end of the season whether that be in the semis or the final itself. They will have one more contest at The Ricoh to explore each others strengths and weaknesses prior to the end of season showdown.
Bath are the other team that have stood out from the rest and have been rejuvenated under new Director of Rugby Todd Blackadder and his coaching team. Whilst attempting to refrain from the obvious puns around cunning plans, it is evident that Blackadder has worked hard on motivating his big players such as George Ford and giving fresh impetus to the likes of stalwart Matt Banahan who has been unleashed in the midfield to give Bath their own gain-line wrecking ball. With the likes of Leroy Houston back as cover for the unfortunate Talaupe Faletau and Matt Garvey growing as captain, Bath have one of the most potent ball carrying attacks in the Premiership. If they continue in their rich vein of form, it’ll be off down to Mrs Miggins’ pie shop for a slap-up celebration!
Leicester have had a scrappy start to the season and in some ways have been quite un-Leicester-like in their performances. Defeats to Sale and Wasps and scrappy wins at Newcastle & Gloucester have not shown them at their best. Their defence has struggled this year and although the back-line has produced some moments of real individual brilliance, it’s in the basics that they need to concentrate and get some shape back. They are, however, typically there in the top four, one win behind Bath. However, after a confidence sapping loss to Glasgow in European competition, they will be looking for better things against Racing 92 next week at Welford Road, particularly as their return to Premiership action is against the Champions at Allianz Park. The Tigers must try and get something from that to avoid a blip becoming a downward trend.
Exeter have been taking their season opening up, despite a run of poor results. Rob Baxter was adamant from the start that he did not expect his team to be winning many of their opening fixtures due to the calibre of their opponents. That said, they perhaps did not expect to have to come from behind against Gloucester at Sandy Park for only a share of the points. Moreover, the way that Clermont opened them up last weekend was actually quite shocking and not something we were used to seeing – even from the best teams – last year. True, they have had significant injuries to the likes of Phil Dollman, Dave Ewers and Jack Nowell, to name but a few. They need to rediscover the elements that made them so difficult to beat, even for the very top teams.
Newcastle Falcons end the first tranche of games sitting somewhat pretty in sixth position above some fairly serious opposition and have, on times, produced some high class performances that put paid to their pre-season tag as relegation candidates. The trick will be sustaining the performances and gaining points here and there but with Kingston Park being a difficult place for teams to come and win at, Dean Richards’ men could embarrass a few of the better teams in the league. Their strength so far has been around the competition at the breakdown and the commitment they’ve shown to the tackle area. This gets harder to sustain as the season goes on but with very few losses to the international series of matches coming up, they are well placed to collect some more points and the odd victory to keep them well above the danger zone.
Sale will be reviewing a mixed start to the season and trying to understand why, having played so well against Harlequins and Leicester, they allowed the only team to beat them at home last year to do the same this year when Gloucester took the trip up the M6 and turned them over. They also came unstuck against Newcastle and if it’s one thing Steve Diamond will be looking for when they return to action in two weeks’ time it’s consistency. Josh Beaumont’s call up to the England EPS is a real boost for the club although Eddie Jones sees him very much as a second row rather than a No.8. His leadership for the Sharks so far has been a shining beacon that others have followed and there have been some stand-out performances from the likes of Dan Mugford, Mike Phillips and the find of the season for the men from the North West in Will Addison.
Harlequins season got off to a shaky start against Bristol, hitting a high point in beating champions Saracens but being destroyed by Wasps and then entering the break with a confidence boosting win against the Saints. It would be fair to say the results have been all over the place for Quins as they try to establish a foothold in the table but some very poor results have left them trailing down in eighth spot, requiring a huge effort in the next set of matches to stabilise things at The Stoop. They are not out of contention for a top four spot at this early stage but the evidence would suggest that in this transition period for the club as John Kinsgton takes over from Conor O’Shea, the style of play they want to achieve is still developing.
There’s no doubt Jim Mallinder didn’t expect his Northampton Saints to be down in ninth position after six rounds of this year’s Premiership but the truth is, they haven’t played as badly as their lowly spot would suggest. A first-round defeat at Franklin’s Gardens to Bath was not what the doctor ordered but good wins against Bristol and Exeter have been soured by losses to Saracens, Wasps and Harlequins. George North has been in exceptional form so far for his club, which has not always been the case, but his link up play with the Pisi brothers has been the difference this season. Add the exciting prospect of Harry Mallinder finding a new and devastating home in the centre and the Saints have firepower right across the back-line. Their forwards now just need to provide a more consistent platform from which to launch their attack in order for the East-Midlanders to climb the table quickly as we move toward Christmas.
Gloucester have suffered one of the worse starts to any Aviva Premiership that one can remember. Something is just not clicking for David Humphrey’s men. They have played some cracking rugby at times and in Ross Moriarty, they have one of the most destructive back rowers in the league. Their big name players have been superb with the likes of John Afoa and Greg Laidlaw keeping them in games at times. The news that Laidlaw intends to leave to join the Top 14 will not help the Cherry & Whites’ cause and only by digging deep and battling through the winter one game at a time can they hope to recover to an acceptable position in the table and to give the Shed something to shout about. Kingsholm used to be a fortress but that mantle seems to have left for now. It will take something special to turn this season around.
On the opening day of the season at Twickenham, Saracens put 35 points on Worcester without seeming to get out of second gear and at that point, things didn’t look good for the men from Sixways. But Worcester have had some really impressive results which show that on any given day, they can cut it with most of the teams in this league. That said, and with last weekend’s demoralising loss to Russian newcomers Enisei-STM in the Challenge Cup surprising everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, the Warriors could be in the relegation battle with Bristol come the end of the season – it may be a case of who picks up more losing bonus points than the other as to who survives.
It has been anything but a smooth ride back into the Premiership for Bristol Rugby and all of the excitement and anticipation of the start of the season has not so much been dampened but totally extinguished by a barrage of tough games and rough results. This teamed with injuries galore, a fixture list that doesn’t let up, hopefully the conundrum of a European competition provides a chance for some morale-building wins or a chance for the first team to rest, ready to give their all when the Premiership returns after a two week lull. They have certainly missed Gavin Henson – the skills and penetration he showed in that opening game against Harlequins at Twickenham and the partnership with Will Hurrell gave Bristol the edge in the first half of the match and they have missed his input ever since. The signing of Shane Geraghty from London Irish could be a great bit of business but he has shown in the past that he can be hit and miss so we will need to wait for his first few performances before we can really judge.
The Aviva Premiership returns on Friday 28th October and it will be fascinating to see who has benefited, regrouped, reorganised and re-energised during the European break.