Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Premiership Rugby 2014/15 - The First Six

I haven’t written a blog for a while (not since my review of the 2014 Wacken festival) and with this one, I’m going to write about something I’ve not written about for quite a while – rugby. The start of the Premiership season has been one of the reasons I haven’t written about anything on this page because I’ve been spending so much time keeping up with everything that has been going on. I took the plunge before the season started and invested in BT Sport and it was a great investment because it means I am watching more rugby from other teams in the division (before I had the channels, I only made an effort to watch Bath). This Premiership season has been outstanding so far. I’m not sure if there is one solid reason as to why this has been the case, but regardless, as a fan of rugby it has been great to see what is going on and what happens each weekend. The Premiership is about to take a break as the teams play their first games in the two new European competitions and then the LV Cup kicks off as well. We’ve had 6 rounds of Premiership rugby and I’ve decided to put down some thoughts on this remarkable season so far. I’m going to go team-by-team in terms of their current league position from top to bottom and just discuss my thoughts on how their season has been going from what I’ve seen and read.

1.       Northampton Saints. Despite the blip against Wasps a few weeks ago, Saints have looked frighteningly good. The opening round battering of Gloucester was a real statement that they were ready to defend their Premiership crown. They are the highest try scorers thus far with 24 in 6 games and they do look dangerous. There are no doubts in my mind that they will be in the top four come May and to be honest, with the way they are currently playing, I could see them defending their title successfully.

2.       Saracens. Another team with only 1 defeat from their first six games (they lost to Bath) but the big difference between Saints and Sarries so far is that there has been some talk about how their performances have not always been great this season. Now, with only the one defeat, things aren’t going that badly. The Friday night win at Harlequins when they won 0-39 must be the season highlight so far. They had a tough old game against Gloucester at the weekend but they showed their class by coming away with the win. They are another team that will be there or thereabouts again come the end of the season.

3.       Exeter Chiefs. Despite their lofty league position, I’d say they’ve had a bit of a mixed season thus far. They came very close to beating Leicester at Sandy Park and a few weeks later were significantly better than Harlequins when they won 36-13 at home. However they did come close to throwing the game against Gloucester away and in round 5, they lost to Newcastle. Still, they are looking pretty strong so far this season and I’m sure the loss to Newcastle was a blip which won’t happen very often for them this season. It is a tough one to call where they will finish this year. I can’t see them finishing lower than 7th this year, but I’m just not sure. If they put in more performances like they did against Harlequins, there is no reason they cannot make the top 4 when the season ends.

4.       Bath. I might be a tad biased here in this entry because I am a Bath fan. It has been a very exciting season so far as a Bath fan but also it has been a frustrating one. The 45-0 win against Leicester at the Rec was one of the best moments I’ve had as a Bath fan. The two biggest wins of the season have clearly been that one against Tigers and then the one 2 weeks later against Saracens. The one big problem Bath has is consistency. Bath managed to stop Leicester scoring any points, yet conceded 4 tries against London Welsh (more about them later). The performances against Tigers and Saracens were just immense and fitting of a team challenging for the title, but then against Saints and this weekend against Wasps, Bath just didn’t play as well as they can do and they lost both games as a result (although both have featured late comebacks which have almost resulted in draws). If Bath can sort out their consistency when the Premiership returns, there is no reason why they can’t finish in the top 4. I also think there will be greater representation in the England squad of Bath players as players like Eastmond, Joseph, Rokoduguni, Ford, Attwood, Webber and Wilson have all made strong claims to be included when Lancaster names his EPS ahead of the November internationals.

5.       Wasps. So far they have won 3 games and lost 3 and two of those have been against Saracens (during the London Double Header) and Harlequins (at The Stoop). They also came close in both of those games. The loss to Sale wasn’t the best but aside from that, they have had a decent season so far and are looking good. They have beaten Northampton Saints and most recently Bath, and are playing good rugby. It seems as though the impending move to Coventry won’t affect them on the pitch in terms of being a distraction so I think they will have a good season. Could they be top 4 challengers in May? There is no reason why not.

6.       Gloucester. After the opening round and seeing the new look Gloucester get comprehensively taken apart by Northampton, I wondered if Gloucester were in for a long season. However, it seems as though all they needed was time to gel. They are looking a much better team already. The result against Sale was a good one and the one against Leicester even better. They also did very well going to Allianz Park and taking a losing bonus point out of the game against Saracens. I think they will be looking to push on for the top 6 this year but I’m not sure if they’ll make it. I think other teams that might also be in the mix could be stronger come the business end of the season.

7.       Harlequins. Harlequins beat London Irish during the London Double Header and I think anyone who watched that game knew Quins had to improve on that performance or a better team than Irish would take them apart. That is exactly what happened the week after when Saracens came to the Stoop and beat them 0-39. You can never rule Quins out when talking about the top 4, but they will need to improve if they are going to get there. They weren’t good against Exeter and the result was a fair one. As I said, you cannot rule Quins out when talking about the top 4, and I think they will be there or thereabouts when the season concludes (ideally not at the expense of Bath this time around though!)

8.       Leicester Tigers. 3 wins, 3 losses so far for Tigers. It really hasn’t been the best of seasons for Richard Cockerill’s men. The loss to Bath was something else. They lost the next two on the bounce, at home to London Irish and away to Gloucester. There was some talk about Cockerill being under pressure after these results which to me seemed a bit silly. They have an absolutely huge injury list with players just starting to return to play (Manu Tuliagi returned this weekend in the win over Harlequins). It most certainly hasn’t been the best of starts for Leicester, but I’d never bet against them finding their way into the top 4 come the end of the season. I think when that injury list gets shorter, they will get significantly stronger and the formidable Leicester Tigers of old will return.

9.       London Irish. So far, Irish have looked decent this season, much more than last term. They were so very close to a famous home win over Saracens and went to Welford Road and beat Leicester. The only game so far that they have really looked clearly second best in this season has been against Exeter and even then, they looked good at the end of the game (just a shame they conceded 5 tries before starting to look like a real threat). If they can keep these decent performances up all season, they certainly could be in the mix for the top 6. I wouldn’t pick them to finish in there though.

10.   Sale Sharks. Sale have won just two of the 6 games they have played so far and I would wager they would consider their season thus far to be a bit of a disappointment. Granted, I wouldn’t expect them to have beaten Saracens or Saints, but that is not to say it was an impossible task (indeed, they beat Saints last season at home). I suspect they will be looking forward to the Premiership restarting to try and climb up the table. I wouldn’t have picked Sale to be 10th at the first break. I think they will still be in the dogfight for the top 6 come the end of the season, but they will be there with a few teams.

11.   Newcastle Falcons. Seeing the table and seeing they are 11th is no shock, I don’t mean that statement to be disrespectful but a fortnight ago, they ended a near year-long losing streak. That is a long time to go without a win and although they have strengthened, I don’t think they did so anywhere near like enough to kick on up the table. I think they will be towards the bottom but thanks to the team that are currently bottom, I don’t see them getting relegated.

12.   London Welsh. Well, what can be said about London Welsh? 6 games played – 272 points against them. They’ve only scored the one point (a try bonus point against Bath) and they are rock bottom of the table. The truth is they haven’t looked very good this season. After they convincingly beat Bristol in the RFU Championship playoff final, I thought they would have a tough ask staying up but I never imagined their season going the way it has gone thus far. Their defence has been pretty bad so far (they have had 36 tries scored against them in 6 games). Is it too late to save their season? Seems ridiculous to ask after 6 games out of 22 but it really could be too late. Newcastle are 8 points clear so Welsh need to win two games just to close that gap. I don’t see where those wins are going to come from either. I hope they manage to find one, because going the whole season without a win would be rough (that said, as long as that win doesn’t come against Bath...!).

The season has been magnificent so far. More important than anything else, there has been a lot of entertaining rugby. I think this season could go on to be one of the best in the professional era if things carry on the way they are going. The Premiership has taken a break now as the new European competitions kick off this weekend and it has to be said, the European Rugby Champions Cup is looking tasty. I think the English clubs in it could have a good showing and we could see several make the last eight of the tournament (if you were to press me, I’d say the teams from England with the best chances of progression are Saracens, Harlequins, Saints and Bath – though of course, anything could happen!) I’m really looking forward to seeing what unfolds in this competition as with a reduction in teams from 24 in the Heineken Cup to 20 in this new competition, it is a whole lot harder to win. One thing is for sure though, with a cracking start to the Premiership season, a couple of new European Rugby tournaments starting, and a Rugby World Cup on the horizon, this is just the beginning for what will be an excellent season.