There are few certainties in sport. Fewer still in the Aviva Premiership. As we rounded our fourth lap of a twenty two week campaign, previous givens were being taken back. Let’s look at some of the talking points. But let’s do it in reverse, starting with Sunday afternoon’s matchup.
Bath travelled to Welford Road to face a previously misfiring Leicester side and yet, despite their positions on the table, you always felt the Tigers would win this one. And so it started; Mike Williams stealing line out ball, Peter Betham accelerating though a midfield gap and Telusa Veainu finding a supreme offload for Brendon O’Connor to finish. Semesa Rokoduguni briefly tapped at Eddie Jones’ window with an excellent solo try but the remainder of the game showed what we’d been missing these past few weeks. The Tigers pulled it all together and pushed aside a Bath outfit in every area of the park. Richard Cockerill was smiling in post match interview, despite the news that Manu Tuilagi would spend more time on the sidelines recovering from his groin injury. 6-8 weeks is the prognosis, although with Matt Toomua to come in and a back line operating so efficiently, you could make a case for this being less of an issue than at first thought.
Saturday had four games that simultaneously kicked off at 3pm. Many eyes were on The Stoop as Harlequins entertained the preseason favourites for a second successive title, Saracens. Still without Owen Farrell, the Barnet outfit were never allowed to get going and it was Tim Visser who scored first, stepping into the Saracens line to poach the ball and gallop in under the posts. Two Tim Swiel penalties bookended that score and a few moments later the South African fly half sent out a wonderfully long, looping, left-handed pass, which produced try scoring space for Charlie Walker to exploit. The home side headed into the break 17-0 up; their lovestruck fans blinking at each other in disbelief. Saracens did reply via a neat Richard Wigglesworth try just after the break but the physical effort from Quins was monumental. Scuffles broke out with regularity as the home side took the battle to their guests; the pack often getting some retaliation in first. Saints had attempted to beat up Sarries last weekend but had gotten carried away; players had been sent to the bin; here was just the right measure of fight. Cheered on by their giddy fans, the South West London barricades withheld a late onslaught and as the full time whistle blew, the Twickenham air was rarefied and very happy.
Over at Kingsholm, the Newcastle Falcons found their hosts in charitable mood. In the last few years, these two sides have cooked up a try fest when brought together and after an opening salvo of a score a piece, many would have thought this encounter was heading in the same direction. But Gloucester are quite the enigma, able to served up woeful and wonderful with unnerving ease and in the second half they coughed up possession and field position on too many occasions; the boot of Kiwi Mike Delany and a smart, short-sided try for Alex Tait saw the visitors amass an unsurpassable total. The dropping of Greig Laidlaw to the bench will have surprised a few after his heroics last week; his final penalty could only rescue a losing bonus point for the Cherry and Whites. I can’t imagine David Humphreys has too many chances left. If you can find a bookies offering odds on P45 handouts, the Ulsterman could be a good bet.
Wasps met up with a spirited Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens and once again the hosts gave away far more than they should. A beautifully worked move saw George North scamper in for Saints with less than five minutes on the clock, but after that, it was all about what Northampton couldn’t do. At one stage, having pinned Wasps back, they failed to find the crucial pass and when Danny Cipriani lurched into gear down the right hand side, you suddenly thought Wasps could mean business. A neat kick and regather from the former Sale man found his mates inside him and Jimmy Gopperth sprinted home from 40 yards. Saints continued to press after the break, Tom Kessell squeezing over from close range to make it a one point game, but it was Wasps who dealt the killer blow. Dan Robson sniped around a midfield ruck and his chip over the fullback saw Ken Pisi trip the visiting scrum half. Josh Bassett piled through to pounce on the bouncing ball and the Northampton Samoan was shown a yellow card. Wasps, it seems, still have too much sting for any opposition. One moment to consider: Ben Foden rolled around like Ronaldo after Nathan Hughes’ marginally late hit, no doubt trying to eek out a yellow card. But later in the game, as Foden tackled Christian Wade in the air, the Wasps winger adjusted himself mid flight and landed on his feet, sparing any potential punishment. I know which approach I prefer. So do you Ben, deep down.
The game of the weekend was arguably at Sixways. Worcester showed real class to build a healthy lead but ultimately, and no doubt frustratingly for all involved with the club, they weren’t able to close the deal. After an early Sale Sharks and Will Addison double, Jamie Shillcock bagged a tidy brace and Perry Humphreys took his record to three tries in three games. The pick of the scores fell to the Worcester fullback Shillcock: set free by Cooper Vuna, the academy product still had a lot to do but pinned his ears back and trusted his pace. He was playing U18 rugby at scrum-half last season; in a short time, he has come a lovely long way. But theSharks never know they’re beaten and, thanks to some serious forward organisation and ballast, as well as tries from Neil Briggs and Halani Aulika, they levelled the scores with minutes to spare and condemned Worcester to their second draw in three weeks. The biggest losers of the afternoon were Bristol. Both sides claimed three points and more space was put between themselves and the Premiership’s bottom club.
Which is where we go last: Bristol were at home in the opening fixture of the weekend. Friday night at Ashton Gate saw Exeter come knocking and the home support was left in no doubt as to just what sort of competition they’d got themselves into. Olly Woodburn and Thomas Waldrom grabbed a pair of tries each and although Bristol only just missed out on a fourth try themselves, the performance will have Andy Robinson and his management team looking nervously towards knocks at the door this week. Exeter have propelled themselves up the table and now appear very much like last year’s side. They also look a much better side with Gareth Steenson at 10. Social Media was crawling with opinions condemning Bristol to the drop. And we’re only four weeks in. Certainties in Aviva Premiership rugby? There are very few.
Aviva Premiership Team of the Week (Round 4)
15 Alex Goode (Saracens), 14 Olly Woodburn (Exeter Chiefs), 13 Peter Betham (Leicester Tigers), 12 Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), 11 George North (Northampton Saints), 10 Danny Cipriani (Wasps), 9 Jonny Arr (Worcester)
1 Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs), 2 Neil Briggs (Sale Sharks), 3 Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints), 4 George Merrick (Harlequins), 5 James Horwill (Harlequins), 6 Mike Williams(Leicester Tigers) , 7 Will Welch (Newcastle), 8 Guy Thompson (Wasps)