Gallagher Premiership Mid Season Review - Part One
In part one of our mid season review, we look at the top six of this season's Premiership competitors at the mid way point; who have been the key performers, what has gone well (or not), and who are the stars making it happen?
It’s a new year, the Rugby World Cup is officially on the horizon, and we are slap bang in the middle of the inaugural Gallagher Premiership season.
In part one of our mid season review, we look at the top six of this season's Premiership competitors at the mid way point; who have been the key performers, what has gone well or not so well, and who are the stars making it happen?
We start at the top with Exeter. Both Sarries and the Chiefs have raced out to an unassailable lead in the Gallagher Premiership, and it’s going to be an almightily challeng, if not impossible, for anybody to catch or match the league leaders come play off time.
There’s a host of players who have stood out in another commanding campaign from the Chiefs, but none more so than Santiago Cordero. Five scores for the season may seem a light return for a man with such ability, yet it’s his prowess and explosiveness in the open field where the pocket rocket has amassed a third best in the league in metres made; 25 points and a total of 80 defenders beaten. Exeter’s approach to grind down the opposing defence and use electric playmakers such as Cordero to cause damage in the tightest of avenues, relays the importance the 25 year old plays in this set up.
Despite a comprehensive win over Sarries, the Chiefs showed a vulnerability in their tight defeat to Northampton a week later, their second in a month after the 2 point revers at ‘Quins. Exeter can be bettered, it takes a Herculean defensive effort and accurately executed variety in attack, but it’s possible. It will take more than few Christmas parties to derail this side however, and it’s hard to look past the Chiefs for a spot at Twickenham come May.
Despite defeat at the hands of Exeter, Saracens sit second with one more win and one less defeat than their closest rivals. A major reason for that has been the cooling-down of their white-hot streak of dismantling sides. Starting the season with blow-out wins in Newcastle and Northampton, with similarly convincing victories at home to Bristol and Gloucester, Sarries victories are no fewer, however they are becoming all the more tighter, if you discount the hammering of an underperforming Wasps. A lot more points scored in the first five than the last six may have something to do with the November internationals, January will tell.
Mako Vunipola has once again been exemplary in his performances in red and black. The looshead has won 4 turnovers, delivered over a 90% tackle success rate, and has been a huge part of the club's formidable set piece. Brother Billy is back too, and just at the right time. With three of the next four Premiership ties against coat tail chasers Harlequins, Gloucester and Northampton, Billy will be so important in cementing Saracens top two credentials and setting a marker for a trio who could very well be vying with them at the semi final stages.
The Cherry and Whites are showing the exact characteristics Newcastle did this time last year. Closing out tight contests, dominant in the pack, and electric out wide. Cipriani has been a class above when not injured or suspended, and seems to have forced himself from Santa’s, sorry, Eddie’s naughty list just in time for the biggest year in recent English rugby history (closes eyes and forgets 2015 ever happened).
Ben Morgan has returned and stomped all over opposing defences in the first half of the campaign. Three scores, 10 turnovers won, over 400 metres gained, a tackle every 6 minutes; the list goes on. His gargantuan efforts have been a major reason the timeless Charlie Sharples currently leads the standings with 9 trys through the year. He’ll need to retain that form heading into 2019, however, with young speedster Ollie Thorley breathing down his neck. Four scores for a man only involved in 50% of Gloucester’s minutes this year is an outstanding production. Not forgetting Matt Banahan with 4 scores of his own, Gloucester have arguably the deepest pools of offensive talent at wing and fullback, and after a solid start, anything less than a top four spot would be major disappointment.
Sat in a top four position and on 28 points, it’s fair to say that Paul Gustard has started to impose his style on ‘Quins, and it’s working. Another two wins would see Harlequins equal their total points haul from the 2017 – 2018 season. Whether that is a sign of last season's failings or not, credit has to be given to Gustard for transforming the mind set and results around one of English rugby’s most competitive clubs.
Marcus Smith is continuing to show the ability and maturity Eddie Jones demanded when including the stand off as an apprentice player last year, sat on 85 points on the season, with Kyle Sinkler showing all the power of a hormonal raging bull, another one at the core of everything that is good about Harlequins so far.
So far, so good then, right? 2019 will be an important year, opening with a trip to Newcastle followed by a double header at the stoop in Bristol and Worcester. Anything less than 12 to 15 points would suggest the side aren’t truly ready to claim a top 4 spot. With that said, a chance to challenge for a top 4 spot in a wide open league, they’ll have to survive without the likes of Care, Sinkler and potentially Mike Brown, being talked up as a potential includion in Englands 6 Nations squads. With Gloucester, Northampton and Leicester to play at home, one thing is certain, a top four finish is in their own hands.
A real mixed bag in the first half of the campaign, Bath have embroiled themselves in the thick of the most competitive league in European rugby. Defeat to Bristol and Newcastle, victory over Northampton and already 2 draws perfectly sum up the season so far. Another team resurgent after a poor 2017/18, the side sit one point off a top four place, despite only achieving try scoring bonus points on two occasions.
Things are looking up however, with 2 massive wins, the first at Wasps, and the following at home to Leicester, which included the resurgence of Jamie Roberts. A mammoth performance from the Welshman very much shows he still has something (and then some!) to offer. The back row department continues to function well, Sam Underhill has been hard-hittingly effective as ever, 14 turnovers and 138 tackles, each as brutal as the last, while Zack Mercer, restricted to a place on the bench more often than he’d like, has been a breath of fresh air coming on to take his side up another gear to ensure they close out the tight victories they have in the opening half of the season.
With Freddie Burns seemingly over his dropped ball nightmare, Bath are arguably the team best placed to close out on the top four. Depth at stand off, a solid pack and experience throughout are a recipe for success. The knee injury to Cokanasiga is a blow, but elimination from the Champions Cup confirmed, Bath are ready to set their sights on a top four finish, and if a little more consistency can be found, they will not be far away.
Another on the fringes of a semi-final spot after an enormous victory over Exeter to close out 2018, Northampton have shown signs of life after the last gasp home defeat to Newcastle in early December. January and February are the pinnacle of the Saints season. Wasps, Leicester, Sale and Bath are the opponents, and with the league as compact and tight as ever, defeat doesn’t just damage their own chances, it greatly enhances their closest competition.
There’s no secret to Northampton’s resurgence, Cobus Reinach has been electric, 6 scores this campaign, 2 intercept try’s in back to back weeks, and the formidable axis the South African is forming with Dan Biggar gives the Saints a wonderful balance to complement a powerful midfield. Northampton do seem to lack a punch out wide on paper, but they have stacked up enough days with 25 points or more to remove that concern from the middle of the opening 11 fixtures.
With 4 wins in their last 6, Northampton are a form team and continue to suggest they have what it takes to finish in a top four spot. Unless some coach or DoR can find a way to stop Reinach, it’s set to continue for some time.