Best Of The Weekend: Battle For Playoffs Intensifies

Dean Richards

Falcons, Tigers and Sharks claim vital wins

Newcastle kept up their remarkable winning form, having now won seven of their last eight premiership games by beating Gloucester. As the business end of the season comes into sight, it was a crucial win away against a rival for the semi-final berths. The visitors controlled the first half, taking a 16-5 lead into the interval after and Ally Hogg try and 11 points from the boot of Joel Hodgson. This turned out to be just enough, with the Cherry and Whites battling back to earn a double bonus point. The hosts scored four tries, but they had their kickers to blame as they went down 21-20 for a first home defeat of the season. The result leaves Gloucester four points adrift of fourth placed Falcons.

Meanwhile, Leicester’s bizarre upturn in form continued as they smashed Worcester 34-5 at Sixways. It may not have been plain sailing this year, but when it comes to the crunch, it seems the Tigers habit of a late surge into the playoffs may not be about to go down the pan just yet. With Matt Toomua pulling the strings, they visitors scored five tries and now sit within striking distance of Newcastle. Next up: a tantalising Midlands derby against Wasps…

Inspiring his side to a victory to keep them in contention, Denny Solomona scored a hat-trick in Sale’s 34-25 defeat of Saints. Whilst they are still a touch off the pace, if they can keep that scintillating style going, they may not be out of the running just yet. Coupled with the result for Sale and the other big games in and around the playoffs, arguably the biggest losers this weekend were Bath, who went down 20-5 at The Stoop to Harlequins.

It seems strange to be writing about Exeter v Saracens so far down, but that is a mark of just how tight the playoff fight is this year. The champions ground out a 24-12 victory, pulling away with a penalty try in the second half. The upshot is that Exeter now have a comfortable lead at the top, whilst Saracens now seem to be playing for a home semi-final and will be hoping that they don’t get sucked in to what is going on below them. Wasps crept into second place with a hard-fought win against London Irish. In a relatively dour game, the hosts edged it 24-16.

What happened elsewhere?

Due to the snow, there are only two matches to talk about in the Pro14. Cheetahs edged Connacht 26-25, whilst Southern Kings got their first win in style, smashing Dragons 45-13.

In Super Rugby, there were a number of away wins this weekend. Hurricanes, Chiefs, Lions and Rebels all came away with the spoils, whilst Waratahs drew at Sharks. The only home wins were for Reds and Crusaders.

In the French Top 14, Racing kept up the heat on Montpellier as the former beat Brive, whilst the leaders slipped to defeat at Agen. There were also wins for Clermont, Pau, Toulouse, Oyonnax and Lyon.

Villain of the week

Details seem at a premium about the George North situation, but any suggestion that a player did not want to play is inexcusable. I understand player welfare and that they shouldn’t be over-worked. Also, him prioritising Wales is fine, but just not wanting to play when you are paid to do so and are fine turning out for your country is just not on.

Hero of the week

A hat-trick is always worthy of a mention here, but to do it away from home and drag your team back into the fight for the coveted Champions Cup qualification spots means Denny Solomona definitely deserves it this week.

Try of the week

It seemed like nothing was on when the ball was shipped to him on the wing with two defenders on him. Quite how Jason Woodward managed to find the speed from a standing start and the space where there was none to grubber through and dive over untouched, I will never know.

Discussion points

How is your Premiership interest during the international period?

Who will make the playoffs with the race so tight?

Thoughts on the upcoming weekend of 6N action?

by Joe Large

8 thoughts on “Best Of The Weekend: Battle For Playoffs Intensifies

  1. Newcastle are getting more impressive as the season goes on. Gloucester have been in good form themselves so for Newcastle to go down their and be the first Premiership team to beat them at Kingsholm this season is a testament to them.

    Speaking of my own team (not expecting any sympathy!), Sarries are having a tough time during the Six Nations period. Five players away with the England squad, one with Scotland and one with Wales. But the injury list is more worrying. A total of 18 senior players out through either international duty or injury is difficult even for a team with our resources.

    1. Is it worse this year? A number of teams in the same squad problem zone. Wasps were 20 players down yesterday, and of those that DID play, a number were not fully fit or carrying ‘niggles’. There is always talk of squad numbers ‘recovery’ as the end of the season approaches, but it seems, at least for Wasps, that we are bringing them back too soon and breaking them again (like Daly and Taylor), or as we get one back we lose another two.

      I guess the same for Sarries? I guess it makes life ‘interesting’.

    2. Glasgow currently have 18 in the Scotland squad alone, never mind injuries!

      This includes our first, second and third choice scrum halves, which is leaving us a little thin! (we have two others in our squad, while an emergency back up, Lee Jones is in the Scotland squad too!)

  2. I do think it’s a major problem, in terms of injuries and player welfare. Would it be worth increasing the salary cap to accommodate bigger squads? If there were room for say 5 or 6 more players, would there then be more rotation and less injuries?

    It also ensures that fans turning up are getting a high quality spectacle.

    1. Raising the cap per se would not enure that there would not be wage inflation, thus meaning no more players, but a higher wage bill with clubs that would be making even greater losses than before.

      An average salary (per player across the squad) might be better, but it might encourage some clubs to sign very cheap players to bring averages down.

      Also, where would these extra quality players come from? I am not sure there are enough even now, and with EPQ rules about match day 23 players squad composition, things would get very tight.

      I think what IS needed is some flexibility on the cap to allow emergency cover to be bought in. For example, as an extreme, take the salary costs of Sam Jones for Wasps. He remains part of their salary cap, but has not played for a very long time, and rumours suggest that he will not, and yet Wasps are fined for being slightly over the cap.

      It could not have been foreseen and Wasps could have done nothing about it afterwards, but they should have been able to go out and find a short term replacement whilst recovery took place.

      It would have to be limited to cases where the club applies to the RFU for dispensation on the cap, and minimum games lost before an application can be made to stop abuse. But, it would be better than what we currently have.

    2. To be honest I think that the Sarries squad at least is big enough. At the moment we’ve just been really unlucky with injuries and the timing of them.
      With so many players either staying with the England squad or, backwards and forwards with the training squads like Kruis, Isiekwe and Lozowski are it must be very difficult for the club’s coaches.

    3. Re the injury crisis, IMO in order to avoid injuries teams need to rotate players more often; and importantly expose younger/academy players sooner. I’ve previously highlighted my belief that a number of Saracens players are being flogged between club and International duties.

      SO to tackle the injury crisis, you need a combination of resting key players – recently there has been discussion about whether stints abroad might help players become more rounded – I would argue this gives them good exposure and it also it provides them with an environment where playing might mean more than winning; I’ve also prev floated the idea of sabbaticals for key England players (although main critique is because they aren’t centrally contracted this would be very difficult to implement).

      By rotating big name players, you also allow your younger players to gain more experience. I do wonder whether we’ve got to the stage whereby looking at the top 4 clubs at the moment, the respective starting XV pick themselves (out of a combination of better skillsets and the need for clubs to win). But because of that, those starting players do not develop as their understudies aren’t given the chance to outshine them (too risky to play them) and the understudies cannot improve by being exposed in areas they are weak in (sounds harsh, but the best players are those that work on their mistakes).

      How you encourage clubs to rotate more frequently through the team is harder to say. Perhaps clubs could get extra credit for playing “Home Grown Players” in their match day 23? As evidence, I would point to Sale, Newcastle and Exeter, who are all doing comparably well with a healthy mix of academy players and clever signings for their match day squads.

      The clubs’s main motivation is to win, and increasing the salary cap won’t change this; it would likely encourage clubs to inflate wages in the short term to recruit/keep high value players which in the long term will make it even harder for less experienced players to break into starting 23s; and when the inevitable International period+injury crisis happens, we’ll just be asking the same question again.

  3. Woodward looked very good, i thought. England should be keeping an eye on him as FB is not one of our strongest positions.
    Glos had the chances to win but failed to land any of their conversions. They should be very frustrated by that, though you have to credit Falcons with a fine, gutsy effort.
    Saracens are struggling with availability, but they are also not playing very well. They were a distinct 2nd best yesterday.
    For Exeter, Luke Cowan-Dickie gave the kind of barnstorming, energy packed performance that should really be rewarded by a place in the England squad. He was terrific.


Comments are closed.