Premiership: Five takeaways from Saturday’s action as England’s top-tier returns with a bang

Colin Newboult

Following an entertaining opening to the Premiership campaign, we delve into the talking points from the four matches that took place.

Premiership back with a bang in Exeter

In a thrilling match full of intensity, physicality and no little skill, Exeter Chiefs stunned defending champions Leicester Tigers by emerging victorious. It was a much-improved effort from the Devonians, who were laboured for the majority of the 2021/22 campaign. On Saturday, Rob Baxter’s men were abrasive and took it to the Tigers, who were on the back foot for most of the encounter.

Although Leicester were resilient, got themselves back into the clash and then ahead going into the final quarter, the pressure eventually told. The visitors defended superbly but they were finally breached in the most dramatic way possible as Patrick Schikerling crossed the whitewash at the death. A brilliant start for the Chiefs but frustration for last season’s title winners.

From hero to villain

Freddie Burns was Leicester’s unlikely match-winner last season in the Premiership final, considering he spent much of the campaign behind the in-form George Ford and on the periphery of the squad. His late drop-goal won them the title – their first since 2013 – and etched his name into Tigers folklore. Fast forward to the start of this campaign where Ford has departed for Sale Sharks and his replacement, South African World Cup winner Handre Pollard, is currently injured.

It means the pressure is on the 32-year-old to guide the Midlanders through this potentially tricky period, but his error in the first half proved costly. To his credit, he showed great pace to get back when the Chiefs kicked the ball in behind but, instead of touching the ball down, he deliberately palmed it dead. The result? A penalty try and a yellow card for the fly-half, with those seven points crucial in the final result. To make masters worse, he was forced off at half-time due to a HIA. Sport has a funny way of bringing you back down to earth.

Worcester Warriors’ lack of preparation shows

London Irish are a very dangerous side and perhaps not the best team to face when you are in the situation Worcester are currently in. With Steve Diamond’s men having a severely disrupted pre-season due to their well-documented financial problems, which included not playing any games, they were put to the sword by Irish.

The Warriors started well enough, putting pressure on the Exiles defence and going close to opening the scoring, but Irish overcame those early struggles and eventually got on the front foot. Despite the effort very much being there from the visitors, their organisation – in both defence and attack – unsurprisingly wasn’t.

New season, but same old Harlequins

If you want entertainment and tries, just watch pretty much every Quins match. It was a typically see-saw game involving the Londoners as momentum swung one way and then the other before Tabai Matson’s men secured a 40-31 victory over Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park. However, you continue to worry about them defensively and question whether their style can result in them consistently competing for silverware.

The old adage is that ‘defence wins championships’ and, although they stunningly won the English title in 2021 thanks to a fluent attack, their deficiencies without the ball remain a concern. No doubt the coaches are working hard to rectify the issues, but perhaps their game plan simply lends itself to these types of games? But, for the neutral, who really cares? More 70+ point thrillers please Quins.

Delight for Ellis Genge, desolation for Johann van Graan

There’s no doubt that the Bears would have lost this encounter without the England prop as his sheer desire, leadership qualities and, most importantly, rugby ability propelled them across the line against Bath. The visitors, who had an overhaul of their coaching staff following an awful 2021/22, were much-improved in Van Graan’s first game in charge, but he – and his charges – were ultimately left disappointed.

Van Graan’s men were excellent for the majority of the match, competing extremely well against a strong Bristol outfit, but the difference in both expectations and confidence ultimately made the difference. This is a season of rebuild for Bath, and the hosts, who have ambitions of challenging for silverware, duly took advantage of their opponents’ fragility. As the pressure increased, Bath began to make errors and Genge’s Bristol homecoming ended in delight for the prop and the Bears supporters.

READ MORE: Ellis Genge makes instant impact as Bristol Bears snatch dramatic victory over Bath