With the seventh round of Premiership action looming large, we pick through the narrative emerging from England’s flagship league so far.
Sale facing defining run
Granted, they’ve suffered less from the World Cup squad absences than a few other teams, but Sale are flying high on top of the Premiership and have thus far been decent value for it, save for an aberration in Exeter. But it is precisely that aberration which leaves lingering doubts in the mind and which has probably had director of rugby Alex Sanderson sounding endless notes of caution.
The Sharks’ five victories to date have been against what is currently the bottom five teams in the table. Exeter away was Sale’s only match against a top-half side and they lost 43-0.
If the Sharks are going to convince us of their title credentials, they need to do it against the teams in the top half too; the visit of Bath, currently second, on Friday night is the perfect opportunity for Sale to assure us they are in for the long race, not just pace-setting. Quins and Sarries then to follow…
Smith needs a relief person
As if to provide an example to Sale of how not to do it, Harlequins went into last weekend top of the table, but veered wildly off-course against a Saracens team which lost two key players in the warm-up and another after three minutes.
Head coach Billy Millard has called the trip to Northampton on Friday “massive” as a result and there are several players with points to prove.
Harlequins’ attack has long been praised but it failed abjectly against Saracens’ revered defence, with the forwards failing to provide a platform and Marcus Smith marked out of the game. Quins need to find someone to take the pressure off Smith’s shoulders and stop teams shutting him down, lest the equation to shutting Harlequins as a team down becomes far too simple.
The Shed needs to roar like a Tiger
You’d forgive the Shed for being a little quiet and introspective at the moment, and not just because Finn Russell told them to cork it. Gloucester started the season with a one-point home win over Harlequins, featuring a 12-point swing to Gloucester in the final two minutes when the visitors had a game-clinching try chalked off with a minute to go for one of those ludicrous head contact decisions; the penalty decision from which Gloucester notched the winning try. They followed that with a narrow win on a particularly disgusting night in Newcastle.
The results since – four defeats including a chastening derby hammering at home by Bath – feel like a little more realistic sign of where the Cherry and Whites are at the moment. The defence and attack are both second-worst behind Newcastle’s, with the loss of Zach Mercer to injury further blunting the latter and long-term injury to rampaging prop Val Rapava-Ruskin eviscerating the scrum. And then there’s the noise about Louis Rees-Zammit’s long-term future.
Gloucester now have consecutive matches against their companions in the bottom half of the table, starting with a home clash with Leicester, who are in a similar position. It’s a game stacked with history which would normally have the Shed in full voice anyway, and it’s Gloucester’s first match at Kingsholm since Russell shushed the Shed a fortnight ago. Saturday would be a good day for those Shedheads not to shush at all and give the boys a boost.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 12, 2023
Have Sarries done their succession planning?
A team so stacked with internationals is bound to feel occasional ill-effects from Six Nations and World Cup call-ups, but the speed at which Saracens rushed their World Cup players back into the side says a lot about how important they’ve become to the club’s continuing success.
It could be the last time before a major rebuild too: Maro Itoje is almost certain to leave at the end of the season because of the new salary cap structure and there’s a whole host of 30-somethings throughout the squad who may be edging closer to retirement or a pension-stocking stint elsewhere.
One of Saracens’ strengths a couple of years ago was the ability to have players who would simply slot in while the internationals were away, but the start to this season indicates that there is now a bit of a gap between firsts and seconds. Still, those worries are for later in the year: Saracens have been irresistible in the last three matches and are still the team to beat. This season.
When rumours shot around last week of another unnamed Premiership club on the brink, almost all reacted with one word upon hearing them: “Newcastle”. That it turned out to be a clerical error at Exeter has done little to dissuade the loose lips at either end of the country.
The Falcons look to be what they are, operating on a far lesser budget than their peers and thus struggling for results and/or bums on seats. Meanwhile, although the salary payment irregularity was cleared up, the news that Exeter are about to declare a loss of something close to GBP4m for the last financial year has hardly boosted confidence that even well-managed clubs are safe from financial peril.
On Sunday the clubs are likely to consolidate their respective positions at the top and bottom of the table, but it won’t change the fact that economics doesn’t take trivialities such as table position into its equations.