The Premiership is back, the Premiership is back, tell everyone that you know that the Premiership is back! That means a weekly rundown of the weekend's fixtures summarised by yours-truly. That means sweet, migraine inducing click-bait... Unfortunately, that also means Rugby Twitter will reawaken to tell us why Saracen's representatives are literally stealing bread from your mother's pantry in order to pay their marquee players.
It was an incredibly interesting opening weekend of Premiership Rugby as we saw most sides ravaged by a mixture of international lay-offs due to over-playing and pre-season injuries to a certain set of superstars. It meant that some of the top sides were putting out players with a point to prove, and some of the bottom sides could finally utilise some of that squad depth that they've been adding to during the transfer window. Although, I'd love to spend the next few hours running through the intricacies of every match from the weekend, I'm going to keep it fairly brief so that we touch upon the major talking points from some of the most intriguing highlights.
Starting the new season with a whimper...
Bristol Bears vs Saracens, a mouth-watering contest on paper with a returning juggernaut looking to send a message, and a team close to greatness, casting revenge on a league that they largely dominated from start to finish last year. However, it ended up being by far the worst eighty minutes of Rugby from the weekends fixtures.
A lot of blame has been put on Saracen's players decimating this game's entertainment factor with a series of uninteresting, unimaginative kicks, but I think it's quite the opposite. Bristol offered little to nothing in terms of resolution for this simple strategy. Although Piutau made a few signature, barn-storming runs, Bristol were largely toothless due to where they chose to play the game. Territory statistics will prove that Bristol spent far too much time between their 22m line and the 50m line, putting themselves in easily kickable positions when punished for silly disciplinary mishaps.
All Saracen's had to do, was front up in defence and wait for Bristol to throw a stray ball or force the error, and boy were there a ton of errors in this matchup. Bristol's 10, 12, 13 axis was one of the strongest in the league last season, obviously supported by world class talent like Radradra, but also bolstered by the great form of Pier O'Conor. This time around, they looked frantic and frustrated at Sarries' shepherding of the midfield.
Two major standouts from this game were Lozowski and Vunipola, who completely outclassed his opposite number in Hughes throughout the first hour. Lozowski slotted kick after kick and pushed Saracen's into threatening positions. With a much weakened lineup due to internationals missing, Lozowski had the perfect game plan to let the ball make the ground and not the talent outside of him. Vunipola was used similarly to how he is used for England, as a tackle sponge to give Saracen's a platform to allow more time to be made before attacking decisions were made. He also fronted-up in defence like a man possessing, putting in some huge hits on some absolute units.
Although the game was a very disappointing watch, for the diehard fans out there, you could just see that Saracen's played a naïve Bristol side like a fiddle all game.
Leicester make a big statement...
Let's face it, we all underestimated how good Leicester could be this season. Although we all thought that they were going to be the same, difficult, snub-nosed outfit they were last season, not many predicted that they would be legitimate top four contenders (especially with how competitive this season will be). The Tigers, in front of a raging crowd of awesome fans, took Exeter to the sword this weekend, smashing them from pillar to post and honestly... The score-line flattered Exeter.
What made Leicester look so impressive, was their balance of old-school, forward orientated dominance and exploratory, creative attacking set plays. They didn't just bully Exeter, they ripped them to shreds. I've seen a lot of pundits talk about how weakened this Exeter side were, missing the likes of Hogg, Ewers, Armand and co, but the manner of their defeat does not reflect the talent on paper. I think this performance was far from worrying for Baxter, who admitted that his side perhaps came into the game a little fresh, but it was worrying for the rest of league who now know they need to play against this ultra-dynamic Leicester side at least twice this season...
The major standout for me in this match was Mr George Ford. As the likes of Squidge will tell you, there are people in this world that think George Ford is a world class operator, capable of unlocking a defence quicker than any other ten in the northern hemisphere, and then there are people who are morons. There was little to no competition between Ford and Simmonds in this game, with Ford constantly throwing deft, short passes to the likes of Kelly and Nadolo to exploit gaps that simply didn't exist until he created them. I've seen a lot of people point to this match as Marcus Smith-esque, but that's putting a disservice on Ford's name as he's had the best short passing game of any Fly Half we've seen put on the England jersey. What he lacks in hoof and size, he more than makes up with strategy and attacking intelligence.
Are Leicester legitimate contenders for the title this season? Potentially, especially if they continue to play like that. A lot of variables will need to be in place to keep this momentum up, such as keeping Ford out of the England picture and fit, keeping Nadolo fit, and how often they can get the likes of Martin and Genge on the pitch without them being pinched by this new-look England setup.
Newcastle Falcons vs Harlequins... Battle of the wingers!
Perhaps an underrated match-up here, we saw the defending champions take on a fresh-looking Falcons side that was sure to be an attacking delight. Although the likes of Smith were missing from the starting line-ups, both sides had big new signings with big reputations to showcase during full 80.
Newcastle are known for their grit and continue to be a side that's difficult to put away, however, if they are going to avoid placement in the bottom three, they will need to turn very winnable home games like this around and steal the odd few points from top four-calibre sides. I'm not saying that they should have been favourites by any stretch to take on this Quins side, but Harlequins did give up opportunities for the Falcons to punish.
I do think Newcastle continue to struggle by not having a top-quality ten marshalling the midfield. There is so much talent out wide, and so many fantastic workhorses in the forwards that they rarely struggle to get a foothold in a game, but they do struggle to match intelligent, strategic decisions on when to play, when to kick and where to do one or the other. Harlequins on the other side absolutely shone out wide, with a certain Italian looking back to his best operating in that ten jersey...
The main standouts for me here, were Adam Radwan and Tommy Allan, both of which brought the entertainment to Kingston Park. Radwan looks like a shoo-in for that England squad, with the fastest feet in the North and genuine flair to match the likes of Kolbe and Graham on the international scene - he has to get some game time for England and looks like a whole other level to our current options out on the right.
Tommy Allan looked like a real savvy operator in the midfield, pushing and pulling that Newcastle Falcons axis apart and creating some huge dog-legs in doing so. When he wasn't the person bursting through and laying off some awesome offloads to create tries, he was putting in some fabulous kick passes to the likes of Lynagh, creating snap tries out of fairly unthreatening situations.
A special mention definitely has to go to Lynagh who continues his rich form of scoring tries, and between him and Radwan, we could see a real battle for that top try scorer accolade come the end of the season.
Other talking points...
Big win for Worcester as they out-scored a surprisingly expensive London Irish first XV. We know the Exiles are going to score a bucket load of points this season, but the Warriors seem to have already laid out the blueprint on how to beat them - target weak shoulders in the midfield, be prepared for phase-play to eventually open up holes, and exploit those holes with target runners. The Exiles were simply very poor in defence and it's something they'll have to rectify quickly before they come up against the likes of Harlequins, Wasps and other attacking focused sides.
Gloucester were very poor in their efforts to take on a middling Northampton side who also looked as if they worked heavily on their attack in the off-season. Special shout out to Furbank who finally looked back to his electric form, opening up this Gloucester side on multiple occasion's with some great jinking runs.