After a busy round of Premiership action, Planet Rugby features writer James While has written his five takeaways from the weekend’s games.
We saw some seismic performances over the last seven days, which has seen Exeter confirm their status as a side well ahead of the chasing pack, disposing of challengers Bristol on the road, and then followed that up with a nine-try demolition of the hapless Worcester Warriors at Sandy Park. Sale’s welcome return to form saw them take two important scalps – those of Wasps and again, Bristol, to return to second. Pat Lam’s side look talented but directionless and they must find more control at half-back to unleash the devastating runners in their back division if they want to be in the mix at the end.
Elsewhere, Wasps bounced back to produce a thriller at the Rec where you could argue that uncontested scrums substantially informed the result, but that would denude the complete and stylish attacking rugby the Coventry side displayed. They now sneak above Bath to take fourth place, and it’s a sign of the style they play that they’ve won one fewer game but have a far superior bonus-point record.
Often the best solutions arrive by forced necessity rather than grand design. The compression forced by Covid-19 has placed immense pressure on squads, restrictions on player times, but most of all, have tested the rugby engineering and depth of resource of all of the Premiership clubs. The fears of injury, workload and fatigue impacting on the squads hasn’t been realised, and, moving forward, there’s a sea change in attitude that Premiership midweekers, controlled appearance times and team rotation might just alleviate the international window congestion and offer a fairer system for all involved.
Viewing figures are up too, with more transient fans able to move across sports due to scheduling times, something that would also carry across should midweek become the default during international windows. The only question is that of player burnout, but the restrictions that PRL applied regarding playing times worked well, made the league more unpredictable and more competitive. There’s nothing not to like about this and it could well be something that the governing bodies will consider long term.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) August 26, 2020
It’s rare for forwards to score hat-tricks in the Premiership and unprecedented for two teammates in the same game to grab a triple, but that’s what happened down at Sandy Park when Sam Simmonds’ compelling post lockdown form saw him scamper over for his three, looking sharp, pacey and intelligent. He becomes one of only three forwards who’ve bagged two Premiership hat-tricks.
England hopeful, the giant lock Jonny Hill, also snared a threesome, showing immense power and awareness to cross the whitewash in the space of 40 minutes. Down in Kingsholm, another England candidate, Ollie Thorley, made it a day to remember in the south west by going one better, grabbing four scores in a stunning 20-minute period. What is fantastic is that all three players are on the verge of Red Rose selection – Eddie’s headaches just got bigger.
Two words here: Jack Willis. If there’s a more influential player in the Premiership this season, we’ve yet to see him. The young Wasp tyro is still uncapped by England, as much due to bad fortune as anything else, but on form, no other back-row forward offers Eddie Jones the complete tight/loose package that Willis does. It’s no longer a case of ‘who does he replace?’ but one of ‘who starts alongside him?’ His all court game is reminiscent of the great Francois Louw: great running lines, sterling support play, superb jackals, bone-crunching tackles and a rugby IQ out of the highest drawer. He is, in short, the complete flanker, and he must start in Rome in October.
Elsewhere, England have two holes they need to fill in their line up: lock and scrum-half. Joe Launchbury and Jonny Hill offer different styles but both have compelling credentials – Hill adding a stone to his frame over lockdown and looking better for it. He is the premier lineout operator in the league and must now get his chance. At nine, while Alex Mitchell has been mooted as favourite, his wayward passing lets him down; Ben Spencer and Harry Randell both look the more complete game-controllers right now and we’re backing Bath’s former Saracen to add to his handful of caps when Internationals resume.
Turning into one of the best wingers in the #GallagherPrem?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) August 31, 2020
Once the heroes of the English game, Saracens are now the pantomime villains of Premiership Rugby. A side loved by their faithful but despised by most of the game for their shenanigans over salary cap transgressions, they’re doomed to the dusty stands of the Championship next season. However, to their credit, they’ve never stopped believing, playing for each other and putting in display after display of complete rugby, winning three from four since lockdown.
Their wins in the last seven days have been characterised by fitting players into a system of excellence, showing the sustainability of their coaching and style. Their defence is still the benchmark, their attack is compelling and their team-ship is a delight.
While you can discount them achieving anything at domestic level, they will be a key figure in the final few rounds as all play-off hopefuls, Exeter, Sale, Bath and Wasps, have to take on the Men in Black. The danger level for those sides is huge; there’s nothing the proud Sarries would like better than to give a few bloody noses. They’ve everything to gain emotionally and we’re sure that there’s nothing Mark McCall would like more than to bow out of the Premiership with the wry smile of someone that’s just proven a rather big point.