Four matches into the season and the Guinness Premiership is starting to take shape. The two teams at the top of the league, Sale and Bath are the ones who have taken two different but effective approaches to the introduction of the ELVs.
This weekend, Sale were expected by many to have their first stern test of the campaign against Gloucester. What resulted was another solid defensive performance and the realisation that a team with excellent tactical kickers can do very well with a conservative game plan under the new laws. Sale defeated Gloucester by 23-9 with tries from Chabal and Doherty but it was Hodgson and McAlister who ran the match with fine kicking from hand and ground.
Dean Ryan gave Ryan Lamb an ultimatum before the match to kick well, control the tempo and stick to the game plan if he wanted to play a major role in the rest of the season. Judging by his comment after the game that the difference between the sides was “Sale had someone who could kick, and we didn’t” I’d say Lamby might be getting a few splinters in his backside for a while. It is a pretty tough challenge to ask someone to remove the element of their game for which they are renowned – spontaneity – and expect them to perform to the top level. To do it so publicly is pretty poor management in my opinion.
The other side sitting pretty at the top is Bath who managed a bonus point in defeating Worcester 37-19 at home. Bath are taking a different approach to the new laws by trying to stay true to their running rugby, counter attack-focused game plan. This is the style the lawmakers were hoping teams would adopt and is similar to what we’ve been seeing in the Super 14 but it has evolved another level to include a more measured contact zone with less aimless touchline to touchline passing. It is attractive to watch and certainly effective while the weather’s still decent but we’ll see how Bath adapt to the changing conditions come winter time.
In the biggest nail-biter of the weekend, London Irish came from 17 points down to defeat Harlequins by a point, the final score was 28-27. Peter Hewat repaid his colleagues for a couple of poor place kicking displays in recent weeks to claim 18 points and seal the win.
Saracens continued where they left off last week with a second victory of the season against Northampton, 26-12. Tries from Rodd Penney and Michael Owen secured the victory in the last 15 minutes. Sin-binnings for Dylan Hartley and Ben Foden undermined what had been a solid performance from the Saints and allowed Saracens to pull away at the end of the second half.
In a repeat of last year’s Premiership final and so many crunch matches in the past few years Leicester faced Wasps at Welford Road on Friday night. In a first half riddled with errors Leicester scored through Johne Murphy and went in at the break 13-6 up. Wasps came out with a renewed determination and won the second half 22-6 and the match by 28-19. Whilst the result might kick start their season, the performance will still be of concern to the management at Wasps and they will face another stern test against Bath on Wednesday night.
To round off the weekend’s matches Newcastle defeated Bristol 17-3. For two teams who were thought by many to be relegation contenders it is Newcastle who have started the season with more hope of avoiding the big drop to division one. Having lost two of their star backs at the beginning of the season, the club are relying more on players who would have been fringe squad members last season and their talisman Jonny Wilkinson. A bit of a siege mentality and “us against the world” vibe up in the North East might just make the difference for the Falcons.
Squad capacity will be tested to the limit this week as all the teams must play again midweek.
By Jon Hobbs