We are five rounds into the 2018/19 season of the Gallagher Premiership and have already witnessed some brilliant matches and superlative rugby. I have crunched a lot of stats, drawn some sweeping conclusions and added a healthy dose of subjective opinion for good measure – here are four things we have learnt so far.
Already a two-horse race
It may seem too early to be concluding the season is already over, but at least as far as the top-two are concerned it is very difficult to ignore the credentials of Exeter Chiefs and Saracens. Last season’s one-two in the table and competing finalists at Twickenham – with the Chiefs topping the table but Saracens taking home the trophy – they have each opened with perfect starts.
Or near-perfect in Exeter’s case. The Chiefs are on 24 points, having clocked four bonus-points in their five victories, only failing to get the four tries in their Friday night win away at Newcastle Falcons. They have also only conceded 83 points – the only team not to be in triple-figures at this point.
Saracens, meanwhile, have been immaculate – picking up the try bonus point in every game to give them a perfect 25-point start. Correct me if I am wrong – but as far as my research can tell, since bonus points were introduced, that has not been achieved. They are averaging over 40 points a game.
Add to that their destructive styles of rugby, built on the foundation of a dominant pack with lethal finishers out wide – although Exeter are more likely to go direct and grind you down via repeated forward drives, while Saracens employ the creativity of the likes of Owen Farrell, Alex Goode and Liam Williams to open up space – and given their current form, I think few outside of the likes of Leinster or Clermont Auvergne will be able to stay in touch over the course of 80 minutes (roll on the Champions Cup).
It would take a braver man than me to bet against one of these two teams winning the league next May.
But the chasing pack is too close to call
While Saracens and the Chiefs seem out ahead on their own, the other 10 contenders have barely a whisker between them.
A bonus-point victory separates Harlequins in fourth from Worcester in 10th; while six teams have each won two and lost three. Wasps may look comparatively comfortable on four wins and 19 points, but they were nearly held by a 14-man Leicester and narrowly squeaked past Newcastle and Worcester by a solitary point.
The latter of those teams was everyone’s tip for relegation, but as well as nearly turning Wasps over, they put 44 points past Leicester Tigers at Welford Road; while the newly promoted Bristol Bears have been a class apart from any promoted team in recent memory. Harlequins are abject one week, before winning their first away game in a year, at the home of the seemingly formidable-looking Gloucester.
Meanwhile, last season’s fourth-placed team (Newcastle) sit in 11th. But it is a mark of this league that it is not cause for panic, rather further evidence that the gaps between the sides have narrowed. Sale sit bottom, but even there it is doesn’t look like panic-stations yet – although their comparatively low 90-points-scored is cause for concern.
There have been losing bonus points in 14 out of the 30 games, and one draw. The 10 games featuring Exeter and Saracens account for just one of those bonus points – which means that (including the draw) 13 of the 20 games between the ‘bottom 10’ have been dictated by a converted try or less.
The point of all this narrative is, and it really is one of the most hideous sporting clichés, this season looks the most competitive yet. And I love it. Although it will be playing havoc with those of you on Superbru trying to predict the results. We look set for a proper dog-fight at the bottom, rather than the more formulaic processions of recent seasons, while it is anyone’s guess who will take the Champions Cup and even playoff places.
Tries are the order of the day
Added to all of that is the fact that teams are going all-out for tries in a way I have not seen before. Overall, we are averaging nearly 54 points, and over six tries, a game – with 26 four-try bonus points.
Exeter have kicked one penalty in five games. One. Out of their 169, three points stem from a penalty kick at goal, the rest the result of tries and ensuing conversions.
They are frequently turning down kickable threes in search of potential fives and sevens. It is bold, but certainly seems to be working for them. And it is an attitude replicated across the league. Saracens have been notorious for the miserly ‘wolf pack’ defence over the years, yet they seem to have opened their style a bit – they are topping the points-scored table but in response are, on average, conceding over 20 points a game. A couple of head coaches, such as Todd Blackadder of Bath, have already mentioned their approach this season focuses more on the need to score more tries than the opposition, than on watertight defences.
While we may see the winter months and the occasional mud-bath attempt to put a kibosh on this approach, given the quality of grounds – and the few artificial surfaces – we may keep getting lucky.
Form is fleeting, class is permanent
Alex Goode has been one of the stars of the season so far – against Bath on Saturday he was brilliant again, making over 200 metres, six clean breaks and beating nine defenders, scoring one try and claiming three assists.
I mentioned in passing last week that I think he should be in with the England squad – I will reiterate it here. An effortlessly classy player, he can offer England something different. While he says he has not heard from Eddie Jones in two years, if Chris Ashton and Danny Cipriani’s (and Manu Tuilagi’s) recalls to the national squad show anything, it is that the door is never completely shut.
Alongside him, the evergreen David Strettle has been excellent, scoring three tries and belying his 35 years, indeed as has Brad Barritt (although I am not making a case for either earning a recall just yet). Along with Ashton and Tuilagi, the form English players of recent months certainly have a ‘Stuart Lancaster England team circa 2013’ feel about them…
By Henry Ker