The short side: George Ford’s response and enter South Africa

Planet Rugby

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the Premiership and United Rugby Championship.

Premiership game to watch – Wasps v Bristol Bears

The clash between a wounded Exeter Chiefs and a Northampton Saints side coming off the back of a victory over Gloucester came close to getting the nod here, but we’re excited to see how both Wasps begin their Premiership campaign and also Bristol Bears’ reaction to what was a disappointing first outing against Saracens.

That sobering loss at Ashton Gate will have stung Pat Lam’s side so we can expect a reaction on Saturday as they look to avoid a nightmare start of two defeats.

As mentioned, it will be Wasps’ first fixture of the season after they sat out last week on the bye, with this a crucial few months for head coach Lee Blackett after that eighth place finish last time out. The addition of former England assistant coach John Mitchell, while a decent acquisition to their backroom team, possibly comes with a touch of uneasy pressure for Blackett to recapture the form of 2019/20 that impressively saw them reach the final or risk facing the chop.

On paper such drastic measures appear unlikely, however, with Wasps boasting some outstanding talent as Vaea Fifita and Francois Hougaard’s arrivals compliment the likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Joe Launchbury and Dan Robson, while they will hope to welcome turnover exponent Jack Willis back from injury as soon as possible.

On their day both these sides produce entertaining rugby and viewers can expect just that on Saturday but one does fear that Wasps might be left one week short in terms of fitness and cohesion against their opponents. Let’s hope, whatever the result, we get a thrilling contest between two teams that chance their arm.

United Rugby Championship game to watch – Leinster v Bulls

Two sides who would expect to challenge at the end of the campaign clash on the opening weekend of the inaugural United Rugby Championship season.

It is a genuinely exciting encounter and will hopefully signal the end of some of the dreary PRO12/14 contests supporters had become accustomed to over the past two decades.

That exhilaration does have to be tempered somewhat by the fact that both teams will be without several first choice players due to post-Lions rest and the Rugby Championship but, by bringing in the South African juggernauts, it will be a positive for the league.

While the inclusion of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings didn’t really work, and naysayers may point to that failure, this is completely different; the Bulls, alongside the Stormers and Sharks, are genuine powerhouses in the sport.

The Pretoria-based outfit, under the stewardship of Jake White, are currently the best team in the country and will hopefully provide a stern test for a Leinster side that have won the last four titles.

However, it will be a question of how deep their squad is. Following the Bulls’ abysmal showing in the Rainbow Cup final, where they were short of several key individuals against Benetton, it suggests they may struggle on Saturday, but a competitive clash would set the 2021/22 season up nicely.

Player to watch – George Ford (Leicester Tigers)

After the announcement of England’s 45-man squad that will meet on Sunday, it was the exclusions more than inclusions that dominated the headlines across the media. No Billy or Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Elliot Daly (injured) were large omissions, but perhaps the most surprising was Ford not being on Eddie Jones’ list.

Ford has been one of the England head coach’s most trusted players during his tenure, but it appears Marcus Smith has now usurped the Leicester Tigers fly-half following his performances in the summer for both country and the British and Irish Lions. It is clear Smith is hugely talented and hopefully gets his chances.

But for Ford all he can do is respond in the best way he knows how – putting in a strong performance like the one he did against Exeter Chiefs in Round One. A number 10 of real quality, he was excellent at Welford Road and will hope to replicate that showing at Kingsholm against Gloucester, which we expect him to do.

There’s no doubting his talent as a playmaker and if he can mount a series of top level outings for Leicester, starting against the Cherry and Whites on Friday, expect there to be calls for Ford to return to the England setup. Refreshed from a summer’s break, he is set to be instrumental in a likely Leicester revival.

One-v-one battle to watch – Craig Casey (Munster) v Ruan Pienaar (Sharks)

One of the PRO14’s best ever players returns to the newly-formed competition and it will be great to see Pienaar playing in front of European crowds once again this season.

He starts for the Sharks in a difficult first-up fixture at Munster but will relish being in front of an Irish crowd as he hopes to lead the Durban outfit to a shock victory.

Pienaar goes up against one of the brightest prospects in Ireland in Casey and it will be a fascinating watch to see how the youngster fares against such an experienced international.

Casey is looking to press his claims for the Ireland jersey on a long-term basis and a strong performance against the wily South African will do those chances no harm at all.

Subplot to watch – The performance of the South African sides

We have touched on the Bulls’ clash with Irish giants Leinster, but there are some other interesting match-ups as the Sharks visit another of the favourites, Munster, while the Stormers and Lions take on Italian duo Benetton and Zebre respectively.

There is plenty of intrigue as to how the South Africans will fare and this will give an indicator as to the prospects of the respective teams. Although they will all be short of their international stars for the first few weeks of the season, the three best squads – Bulls, Sharks and Stormers – look as strong as any of the top sides on paper.

Again, patience will perhaps be required as they adapt to life in a new competition but, having played regularly in Super Rugby, they will at least be used to the travel factor.

They will also be familiar with the style of the northern hemisphere outfits – after all it is far more set-piece orientated in Europe – and should make the league far more interesting.

With the Irish provinces dominating, and the likes of Leinster and Munster able to win comfortably with weakened teams, the credibility of the league has dipped, but the South African inclusion may just change all that.