Saracens finally beaten…twice
If there was anyone who was going to beat Saracens this season, whilst still full strength before the Six Nations kicks in, it was going to be Exeter. The Chiefs secured top spot at Christmas with a 31-17 victory over the Champions, in which they played much better to the referee, were more dominant in the carry and Saracens didn’t do what they did so well in the final at Twickenham which was deny the Chiefs the ball. Owen Farrell also had a rant at the officials which didn’t help and the Chiefs used their maul to monstrous effect once again, gaining a penalty try from it and bagging the bonus point through flanker Matt Kvesic.
Exeter slipped back to second place shortly afterwards, but then Sarries were beaten again by Sale in Salford, suggesting that the top two aren’t as far ahead of the rest as we thought.
The Chiefs’ Party is abruptly spoiled by the Saints
In a compelling, enthralling match of Friday night lights rugby, Northampton Saints achieved a huge victory over Exeter, whose away form is beginning to look patchy. After all their hard work of beating the defending Premiership champions at Sandy Park, the Chiefs were undone by some stout Saints defence and were perhaps left unlucky in the fact that their sheer scrum dominance was not rewarded in the form of more yellow cards. Scrum-half Cobus Reinach was absolutely superb with another intercept off the lineout, perhaps catching the eye of the Springbok selectors. Young centre Fraser Dingwall also scored a well-finished try and made a try-saving tackle. All in all, it just seemed that the Saints were destined to win that night and despite not winning the match at the Ricoh Arena the following weekend, I do believe the Saints are genuine Top 6 contenders.
Sale pull off two massive wins to maintain unbeaten festive period
You’d think that even in the 2018/19 season, where so few matches are given, Gloucester at home, following a decent away victory at Kingston Park, would put Sale to the sword. That did not happen. Sale were devilishly clinical, scoring some feverish tries and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, on the back of the announcement of his contract extension at Sale, was undeniably sensational. Gloucester applied a lot of pressure, but only had two tries to their name such was the ferocity of the defence and the work of Tom Curry at the breakdown turning ball over.
Sale continued that good work with another physical and dominant defensive display against 2nd-place Saracens, who were constantly on the wrong side of the referee Matthew Carley as he gave out two yellow cards. Sale had the defensive capability, the scrum dominance and the control to see out another famous win which leaves them an undefeated festive period in the Gallagher Premiership.. Despite being one of my pre-season favourites for relegation, the Sharks look to be safe from such a prospect at the moment.
Tigers rediscover their home form
After an 8-match run of losses, their worst since the 70s, Leicester looked to be in trouble and some fans were quite reasonably worried. But at home, against Harlequins on the 23rd December they stood up to the occasion, especially in defence and recorded a bonus-point win. They had a stern task ahead of them at Bath, and fell foul of some pretty shocking officiating regarding two of Bath’s tries, but really tested the West Countrymen and left the Rec with perhaps a vital losing bonus point. They then hosted Gloucester in their first fixture of 2019, and the Tigers’ attack, masterminded by the brilliant George Ford, achieved another bonus point win and held on in defence as the Cherry and Whites had a significant amount of possession. Much improved from the men in green, they are starting to play as a team and are playing for the head coach. Maybe not this season, but I think we will see the rewards soon enough.
Seasonal woes continue for Wasps
Following a pretty poor European campaign which saw the West Midlands inhabitants out of the competition in the group stages for the 2nd year running, Wasps’ frankly diabolical form has ensued in the Premiership, succumbing to a home defeat to Bath for the second consecutive season, and losing to Harlequins in Big Game 11. There was plenty of nitty gritty, infamously culminating in the Dave Ward incident, one that has been eagerly debated and blown out of proportion. While the minute stamp was naughty, the spit was not pre-meditated. Back to the game however, Harlequins were not perfect but scored two great ‘straight from training ground’ tries and were in control of the game. Wasps battled hard but they are in need of some serious rethinking at the moment. Their form at the moment is almost laughable, despite the fact they returned to winning ways this weekend against Northampton, it was still a long way off from a good performance and they benefited from Thomas Young having an absolute nightmare as well as some questionable refereeing decisions.
Ulster continue their excellent form only to lose tightly to Connacht
After two fine wins over Pro14 finalists Scarlets in the Champions Cup, Ulster have prolonged new Head Coach Dan McFarland’s honeymoon with a huge home victory over Munster. Their form hit an abrupt stop however in the form of Connacht, who are the Pro14’s dark horses this season. And through the hard ball-carrying of flanker Colby Fainga’a and a try from Ireland international Bundee Aki, the home team secured victory in front of their boisterous crowd. Ulster then lost to Leinster in what seemed to be a bit of a thumping, but they rested key players, so perhaps I won’t read too much into that one. However it really looks as though all four Irish provinces are excelling this year.
Dragons bounce back after inevitable head coach sacking to get 1st win over Ospreys since 2014
In terms of performance and overall squad quality, new interim boss Ceri Jones had a lot to do to try and drag the province from the doldrums. However, his team certainly gave him the perfect start with a close win over rivals Ospreys, their first since 2014 and it very nearly didn’t happen as the opposition fly-half Sam Davies had an opportunity to gain the lead in the 79th minute but missed a pretty straightforward kick to hand the Dragons an important win. It didn’t last long however as they were beaten by the Scarlets this weekend, but only just…
Scarlets dreadful run of form still ongoing
There are two reasons as to why this is happening in my view. Obviously, the first reason is injury, such was their crisis that long-term hooker Ken Owens was forced to play at Number 8 against the Dragons this weekend. Also, I feel that several Scarlets fans are feeling aggrieved that the WRU is interfering too much in their affairs, with all the post-World Cup planning regarding Wayne Pivac. Whatever the reason, Scarlets have just been really poor, and whilst they scraped to a victory at home against the Dragons, they have a stern test in the face of Leicester next week in the Champions Cup.
Key Talking Points:
– How do you think the Premiership table is shaping up?
– Do you think the closeness of the league is good for the Premiership?
– What is your take on the Dave Ward incident in Big Game 11?
– Do you think that Wales’ post-World Cup planning is affecting the Scarlets?
– What was your rugby highlight of 2018?