Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro reviews the return of the Gallagher Premiership, as Exeter Chiefs continued where they had left off before lockdown.
166 days after the last tackle was made in anger, Gallagher Premiership Rugby returned on Friday night and despite the game between Harlequins and Sale Sharks not exactly being a classic, it felt so good to have professional rugby back on our screens. Due to the nature of the season being restarted post-July 1st, a large number of players who have made the move to new clubs found themselves in the unusual position of turning out for multiple clubs in one season, some having a greater impact than others.
The hot topic of the weekend however was the stricter refereeing of the breakdown, that saw an excessive amount of penalties given as players took time to adapt to adapt to the new, harsher officiating in the area. Despite no laws being changed, referees are now policing the breakdown in a stricter manner, expecting the tackler to roll away immediately after completing the tackle and the tackled player being expected to immediately place the ball backwards towards his teammates. The aim is to speed up this phase of the game, allowing for a faster-flowing 80 minutes of rugby.
Harlequins Sink Teeth into Sharks
Harlequins and Sale Sharks welcomed in the return of live rugby on Friday night with a game for the purists, securing a surprise 16-10 victory. Up against a much-fancied Sale Sharks side expected to be one of Exeter’s closest challengers, Paul Gustard’s side played with a control and poise they had been lacking before lockdown, talented flyhalf Marcus Smith orchestrating things masterfully in the 10 jersey. Sale’s bruising side contained seven South African’s, including World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager struggled to muster any real momentum, with a lack of ball for new signings Sam Hill and Manu Tuilagi hindering them greatly as Quins secured a fully deserved victory.
Nanai Sees Red as Skivington Starts with a Win
Only Leicester Tigers could truly match Gloucester for upheaval during lockdown. With the departure of a host of players and head coach Johan Ackermann, George Skivington’s announcement as Head Coach took many by surprise. Worcester had been quietly confident going into the restart after a host of promising players re-signed, joined by former Exeter Chief Matt Kvesic and flyhalf Billy Searle. A dream start for Worcester, as captain Ted Hill scored after 90 seconds, ultimately counted for little as Melani Nanai saw red for a dangerous hit on returning winger Jonny May that left him unable to continue. From there, Gloucester moved through the gears, scoring 6 tries on their way to a 44-15 win as Worcester’s 14 men struggled to keep in contention.
Metronomic Chiefs Continue Where They Left Off
Exeter Chiefs resumed their campaign with a 26-13 bonus-point win over a determined and new-look Leicester Tigers side, desperate to reverse their fortunes under new head coach Steve Borthwick after a chaotic lockdown period behind the scenes that saw established players such as Manu Tuilagi and Telusa Veainu leave due to contract disputes. Many had predicted the Chiefs would run riot against the Tigers but this was not the case as the away side caused Exeter problems, both sides struggling with the breakdown. Once the Chiefs got going though, they were able to outclass Leicester. Following a trademark forwards try from Dave Ewers, Stuart Hogg finished off a classy set-play to give Chiefs a 12-6 advantage at the break. In the second half, a quick-tap penalty try from Luke Cowan-Dickie and a penalty try allowed the Chiefs to stretch clear, before Tigers scored a penalty try of their own. New signing Jonny Gray was impressive in the second-row, with Jack Maunder stepping up well at scrum-half after the departure of Nic White. Tougher challenges await Rob Baxter’s side but this was a good way to blow away the cobwebs.
Dominant Bath Sink Irish
Bath turned in arguably the most complete performance of the weekend as they swept past London Irish in a 34-17 victory, securing their first win since February. New signing Ben Spencer opened the scoring with a length of the field intercept try to start proceedings, with Bath 17-0 ahead before Irish were able to open their own account. England centre Jonathan Joseph showcased his athleticism with an acrobatic try in the corner to secure the bonus-point, as Bath put themselves firmly in the hunt for a European place.
Bears Claw Their Way Through
Bristol Bears secured a nervy 16-12 victory over already relegated Saracens in dire conditions at Ashton Gate. Bristol are expected to be Exeter’s biggest challengers for the Premiership crown, the signings of British and Irish Lions prop Karl Sinckler and world-class Fijian centre Semi Radrada setting tongues wagging at the potential within the side. This wasn’t a day for the elusive footwork of Radrada however, as Bristol had to rely on a late penalty try to secure the win. Saracens selected a strong side, with the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Jamie George all starting. Despite a scintillating score from Bristol winger Luke Morahan being chalked off after Maro Itoje was blocked from making the tackle, the Bears stuck to their guns, securing the result with an outstanding defensive set, forcing Saracens to fumble the ball near the line with the clock in the red. The result takes Bristol into second place, 8 points behind Exeter
Wasps Sting Saints to Move Fourth
Wasps produced a classy team performance to record a bonus-point 34-21 win away at Northampton despite having two players sin-binned. Sunday’s offering of Premiership rugby was the closest of any match to the standard seen before lockdown, teams struggling to get up to speed having been a feature of the opening fixtures. Wasps looked dangerous from the off, with a well-crafted Josh Bassett try and another score from the influential Jack Willis allowing Wasps to take a 14-6 lead into the break. Northampton responded with a score from scrum-half Alex Mitchell, tasked with replacing the influential Cobus Reinach, before Ben Harris burrowed over from close range. After Northampton closed the gap to 3 points, Wasps struck again, Thomas Young demonstrating exactly the sort of fast-flowing rugby officials are trying to encourage with the policing of the breakdown, stealing the ball and spinning out of contact. His pass found Lima Sopoaga, his perfectly timed offload finding Dan Robson who in turn fed Bassett to race clear for his second try of the afternoon. Young and Willis were supreme at the breakdown, showing the way for their fellow players in the coming weeks if they want to be as successful in that area of the park.
Overall, a promising return to competitive action for the Gallagher Premiership sides. With the rust now out of the players systems and the British summer hopefully providing more sun, we could be set for some thrilling action on the pitch. Such is the congested nature of the table that second to seventh are only separated by 10 points, Exeter Chiefs seemingly breaking free from the back at the top of the table.
With a tightly packed schedule in order to complete the season, squad rotation is going to be crucial for all sides. Friday will see the next set of games, as Exeter Chiefs travel to third-placed Sale Sharks, aiming to continue the positive start they made on Saturday, before a three-day turnaround into a titanic clash away at Bristol Bears. By the time the dust settles on those two games, one would imagine Exeter’s prospects of a second Premiership title will be a lot clearer.