Over the past couple of weeks the focus has been largely on international rugby and clubs have had the opportunity to delve into their squads during the Anglo-Welsh Cup. With the double bill of international and domestic rugby this weekend it’s time to remind ourselves the lie on the Premiership land and take a look at the early season points of interest.
The Top Third: Saracens, Wasps, Bath and Leicester
A few wondered if Saracens would be able to replicate or better the level that they achieved last season and quickly it was evident that they would. The reigning champions look settled and focused but of course the challenge ahead is to continue at that level without their key international players. Saracens always pride themselves on the strength of their squad depth but the forthcoming matches against Sale Sharks, Gloucester Rugby and Bath Rugby won’t be walks in the park. During all three they will be crossing their fingers that no further injuries occur in their second row as Michael Rhodes and Jim Hamilton currently man the fort.
From the word go Wasps have impressed with the fluidity of their attacking output and have combined this with a hardy forward pack. This season the fruits of really solid recruitment are coming to the fore and I’d say that their squad is one of the leaders of the domestic pack. We’ve seen on numerous occasions Wasps’ ability to win beautifully and to win in an uglier fashion so in terms of Dai Young’s side it’s simply a case of more of the same during the coming three rounds.
Standalone Bath Rugby’s early season results are impressive and then when you factor in the number of injuries that they have had to contend with then you turn your head a little more. The West Country side’s confidence is back and that was shown in full at Sandy Park when Semesa Rokoduguni’s try sneaked the victory. The West Country side’s injury list is now diminishing but obviously they will be without their key axis of Kahn Fotuali’i and George Ford for the forthcoming rounds.
Leicester Tigers’ position in fourth belies the early season question marks that were hanging over their performances. It’s fair to say that it still hasn’t been seamless from the Tigers but their home form has kept them in shape when it comes to the table. Two of their next three games are at Welford Road and with the away trip being to Ashton Gate you expect that they will look to maintain or enhance their standing before the next European break.
The Middle Third: Sale, Harlequins, Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints
When it come to Sale Sharks I personally don’t think that we’ve seen them really fire yet. In the same manner as Bath Rugby injuries had played a larger part of their early season than they would have liked in particular at fly-half. Without a doubt the Sharks house exciting talent but I think there’s more to come as a collective. Steve Diamond’s side now face Saracens, Wasps and Exeter Chiefs before a double bill against Saracens in Europe so it’s vital that they don’t pick up many knocks and can select consistently over that period.
Harlequins are another side that have to be thankful for strong home form and as a collective know that they need to buck their trend of struggling during the international periods.
The coming weeks will be about their squad members stepping up and delivering as a collective to ensure that their standards remain high and don’t shake.
It’s fair to say that Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs side have found the first part of this season a challenge. From a scheduling perspective the opening run of matches weren’t kind to them and their confidence has been shaken slightly. However I believe that one big performance and victory could get them back on track and firing again. The Chiefs start with a long trip up to Newcastle and will be hell bent on delivering their processes in order to put in a winning performance.
Northampton Saints’ narrow Round 7 victory against Gloucester Rugby saw them move up the table but eighth position is nowhere near where they want to be. From where I’m sitting I haven’t seen the side really click consistently for back-to-back outings, there have been key victories delivered through determination but nothing that really sings. Personally I’d like to see more from them in attack to start really making inroads into this Aviva Premiership table.
The Bottom Third: Newcastle Falcons, Gloucester Rugby, Worcester and Bristol Rugby
Newcastle Falcons’ thumping by Bath was their major blot on their copy book in the opening rounds of Premiership action but they’ve surprised a few people with their output. Dean Richards’ side have the ability to annoy opponents and catch them off guard especially at Kingston Park and that will concern Exeter Chiefs in Round 8.
If you are a fan of Gloucester Rugby then having a strong constitution has to be a key criterion! The drama has been undulating and must have been tough on the blood pressure. The hope will be for a slightly less dramatic few rounds and rounds in which their elusive consistency finally arrives. But, facing Wasps and Saracens in Rounds 8 and 9 aren’t ideal fixtures to find your feet in are they?
Worcester Warriors went into the season off the back of their slightly unforeseen changes in management but have handled that well. The Warriors have shown that they can deliver the key elements required but the challenge will be ensuring that those elements of a hardy defence, exciting attack and solid set piece are all put together for eighty minutes consistently.
Bristol Rugby’s start to the Premiership season has been hugely challenging but if you looked at the fixture list ahead of time then it was always a distinct possibility that they’d be zero from seven come Round 7. As a result Andy Robinson has lost his job and now they are at the stage where someone may or may not come into the club. Without knowing the ins and outs at the club it seems to be a tough call on their, now former, Director of Rugby. The challenge that awaits Bristol during the next three rounds is a derby day against Bath, Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate and another derby against Gloucester. Three big challenges but can the confidence of an Anglo-Welsh win against Sale and the introduction of sparky back Jason Woodward help them find that elusive Premiership W?