The short side: Nine scrap and Bath boss on the brink

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 – Leicester Tigers v Sale Sharks

The league leaders will be looking to make it six wins out of six when they run out in front of their home crowd to face a tough Sale Sharks outfit on Saturday. After defeating Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, Saracens, London Irish and Worcester Warriors, the Tigers are flying high at the summit and look full of confidence. In contrast, Sale haven’t had the start they were hoping as injuries and absentees have not helped their early campaign, with two victories from five not ideal.

However, there should be very little to separate these two sides this weekend as the Sharks, bolstered by the return of Springbok giant Lood de Jager and going with a hulking midfield of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Manu Tuilagi, will fancy themselves to bring an end to Tigers’ impressive unbeaten start to 2021/22. But, those chances of an upset are reduced slightly by Sale being without three top scrum-halves, as Faf de Klerk, Raffi Quirke and Will Cliff are all unavailable.

On paper Leicester should have too much quality and cohesiveness against their rugged opponents and it is hard not to be wowed by the Tigers’ strength in depth this season. This Saturday Ben Youngs comes in for Jack van Poortvliet and he’ll hope to click with George Ford, especially with England coaches watching on.

URC game to watch – Ospreys v Munster

After winning three out of four of their games so far, the Ospreys face their toughest challenge yet against Munster, who have won all four of their matches in the competition.

The Welsh region have impressed in their triumphs against the Dragons, Cardiff and Benetton with their only blip being a 27-13 home defeat to the Sharks in Round Four. Against Benetton last week, the Ospreys kept their campaign on track when they survived a fightback from the Italian outfit in Treviso and they will be determined to improve on that effort as they have won only twice in eight meetings against Irish provinces.

They have also struggled to beat Irish opposition at the Stadium – winning just once at the venue against teams from the Emerald Isle since April 2018, while Munster have come out on top there on their last five visits.

The Munstermen will approach this fixture in a confident mood after maintaining their unbeaten start to the season courtesy of a late 20-18 victory over Connacht in Galway. Beaten finalists in the 2020/21 PRO14, Munster have been on the winning side in their last 11 matches against the Ospreys in all competitions since they succumbed on their home turf in February 2016.

Player(s) to watch – England omissions

The training squad that Eddie Jones named back in September wasn’t a ruse then and indeed George Ford and the Vunipola brothers have been left out in the cold.

Despite many agreeing that this England side needed fresh faces, with particular criticism coming in the direction of Billy Vunipola and Ford, that duo, as well Billy’s brother Mako, have actually played rather well this season.

Jamie George was another surprise absentee, only for the hooker to receive an immediate recall following the injury to Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Those four all start this weekend as Leicester Tigers and Saracens look to continue their fine campaigns so far. Ford has been outstanding in the Tigers’ resurgence and will expect to maintain that form against a powerful Sale Sharks unit.

As for Sarries, they have been hugely impressive on their return to England’s top-flight and completely demolished a woeful Bath team last weekend.

Billy Vunipola has improved as the season has gone on, while Mako has been consistently excellent, and if they continue with those performances – starting with Wasps on Sunday – it will be difficult for Jones to ignore them for the Six Nations.

One-v-one battle to watch – Rhys Webb (Ospreys) v Craig Casey (Munster)

It’s very much a case of an experienced campaigner against an opponent with plenty of potential in this fixture as 32-year-old Webb goes up against Casey, who is 10 years his junior.

After last featuring at Test level against England in November 2020 and failing to make Wales head coach Wayne Pivac’s squad for their upcoming Autumn Nations Series matches against New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and Australia, Webb will not be lacking any motivation to get the better of Casey, who has been called up to Ireland squad for their year-end Tests.

Webb and Casey are vital cogs for their respective sides and have delivered excellent performances in the United Rugby Championship. Like most scrum-halves, both are feisty characters who will give 100 per cent effort to give their respective sides the upper hand, with Webb’s physicality one of his strengths while Casey is an elusive runner with an eye for a gap.

The diminutive Casey will be punching above his weight against Webb, who can be quite physical with ball in hand and it will be interesting to see how the Munsterman deals with that aspect of his opponent’s game.

Subplot to watch – Bath’s response to last weekend’s horror show

Pressure continues to mount on director of rugby Stuart Hooper, but the club are holding firm. He desperately needs a win – or at the very least something resembling a competent performance – when they head to Harlequins on Saturday.

The West Country outfit struggled last season and they look even worse in 2021/22, leading to supporters unsurprisingly demanding a change at the top.

Hooper has received the brunt of the criticism and those calls grew louder following their 71-17 palindromic shellacking at the hands of newly-promoted Saracens last weekend.

A game away at defending champions Quins is hardly the ideal match to find some form and confidence, and fans will no doubt fear another heavy defeat.

We can’t see anything other than a comfortable win for the hosts but, for their director of rugby’s sake, Bath will need a vast improvement at the Stoop.

The team’s previous display wasn’t one which suggested they had confidence in their coaching staff, nor was it one which showed they are playing for their boss. It is far too talented a team to be languishing at the bottom of the Premiership and, needless to say, matters have to improve quickly or else it will be the end of the road for Hooper.

Best of the rest

The Premiership action begins on Friday as Northampton and Worcester Warriors meet in a game many expect the Saints to come through with plenty to spare. It is then a busy Saturday as four games kick off at 15:00 BST, with Exeter Chiefs v London Irish, Gloucester v Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins v Bath joining our match to watch on the schedule. Saracens, fresh from hammering Bath at the Recreation Ground, are in action on a Sunday once again and this week take on Wasps.

In the United Rugby Championship, there is Glasgow Warriors v Leinster and Scarlets v Benetton on Friday before Zebre and Edinburgh kick off Saturday’s action in the early game. That is followed by Cardiff against Dragons and a big one between Connacht and Ulster, with our game to watch in Swansea wrapping up Round Five.


Farrell’s adaption key to England’s success

Planet Rugby features writer James While picks out three talking points from England's squad for the Autumn Nations Series.