Gallagher Premiership Mid Season Review - Part Two

As we reach the halfway point of the most competitive Premiership in living memory, we follow our review of the top 6 with a look at the other half dozen sides. False positions, relegation looming, or just a bad patch? What does each sides 2018 project for their 2019?


By Morgan Lowrie
5th January
By Morgan Lowrie
5th January

As we reach the halfway point of the most competitive Premiership in living memory, we follow our review of the top 6 with a look at the other half dozen sides. False positions, relegation looming, or just a bad patch? What does each sides 2018 project for their 2019?

Sale

Three words. Faf de Klerk. The world rugby player of the year nominee has committed the next four years of his career to the Sharks, and it would be difficult to propose a better piece of business by any club in 2018, even if it was announced December 31st!

After last season promised so much and ended on a bit of a damp squib for Sale, it would have been easy for the Manchester side to come into the season lethargic and feeling sorry themselves. While it hasn’t been a stellar campaign to date, Sale are looking like a team that can push for Champions Cup rugby. Wins against Bristol, Northampton, Newcastle and Worcester, all at the AJ Bell, with their only road win coming in the final game of 2018, Sale have delivered exactly as expected. A tough 2019 is ahead, and the remainder of their home games are all currently sat in the top 6, as well as Leicester, and whilst travelling to Wasps and Newcastle isn’t as daunting as it was last season, Sale have a tough run in on the route to Twickenham.

No better way to start than with victory over champions Saracens then. The first in a long road to a top four spot, but the manner of that win would have pleased Diamond so much. Not many get under the skin of the men in black, dominate defensively as well as with the ball in hand as Sale did in the opening game of 2019. A long road it may be, but if Sale can find consistency, that element alluding all but two teams in the Premiership this year, then not many will better them.

As mentioned, de Klerk has been phenomenal, again, but the work of Jono Ross on the blindside flank has not gone unnoticed. 7 turnovers won, a monstrous 179 tackles and a solitarily try has so far been the output, but his business around the park makes life so much easier for de Klerk to cause the chaos he often does in and around the breakdown.

Wasps

It has been a tough opening half of the current campaign for Wasps. Uncertainty off the pitch undoubtedly hasn’t helped, however this seasons troubles were all too predictable coming off the back of the semi final thumping to Sarries in May 2018.

The elephant in the room, Cipriani, is the biggest absentee. Departed for Cherry & White shores, it’s no surprise to see his new team occupy the spot his previous employers did for the majority of last season. Ex All Black Lima Sopoaga, despite his charming nature, hasn’t really been able to fill the admittedly huge void, and since returning from injury, Willie Le Roux hasn’t been able to link anywhere near as devastatingly with his new number 10.

Michael Le Bourgeois has been a welcome addition. Seasoned in the Championship with Bedford Blues and fast approaching 30, the powerful runner doesn’t have a lot of years left in the tank, and with talk of Daly leaving, this could be a club with a totally new look, both on the pitch and off by the beginning of next season. Whilst this season isn’t completely dead in the water, it’s a tough ask to produce what they did last season, down Cirpriani and the injured Gopperth, with real insecurity around the club, any ounce of security or comfort would do Wasps just fine.

Whilst positives have been few and far between, they have tended to come in larger packages. Firstly, Thomas Young has been a willing runner and a defensive wall, 7 tackles missed out of 141 attempted, with three scores on the year. Not many have had quite as a productive season at blindside, fans of Wasps will be hoping throughout all of the uncertainty, father Dai and son stick around for years to come. On that note, Dai Young committed his future when others wouldn’t, and whilst it’s not been a season to celebrate, the squad is still competing, and a Champions Cup place is certainly not out of the question.

Leicester

Where do we start? Probably the March of 2017 and the sacking of Richard Cockerill. Just look at Edinburgh sat pretty atop a daunting Champions Cup group, it hasn’t been the same fiercely competitive Leicester Tigers since the Warwickshire native moved North of the border. After the dismissal of Matt O’Connor two games into the season, in came former Tigers stalwart and Ireland fullback Geordan Murphy, firstly on an interim basis and then recently a permanent one.

In December, the month Murphy became a permanent member of the Leicester hierarchy, the Tigers recorded their worst month of the season. One win in five, an absolute trouncing by Bristol Bears, and dismally dumped out of the Champions Cup by Racing 92. With Newcastle and Bristol showing signs of life in the same month the Tigers looked more like kittens, it’s hard to see where Leicester go from here, other than an out and out battle with the Warriors to avoid the Championship. With relegation a serious and realistic consequence if things don’t improve, Murphy could be the second causality in a season to forget if things don’t pick up.

Despite all of the troubles Ellis Genge has come to the fore and looked a serious prospect. Not taking the conventional route into rugby, he’s highlighted the class divide that still exists in the game, and is a big character in a squad that seem to be lacking them. His activity off the pitch shouldn’t detract from his monumental performances on it, and if Leicester are to steer clear of danger, a man like Genge in the set piece and around the park will be crucial.

At the other end of the scales, Jonny May has continued to impress. Seven Premiership scores, a lethal strike rate of one score every 1.5 games, and most impressive of all his work in defence. Long criticised for not being reliable in the defensive line, May has responded with solid efforts out of possession, a 90% success rate in his 45 tackles attempted.

April will be a defining month, Newcastle and Bristol with a week to recover betweem them will be intriguing, depending on how the Tigers go from now until then could see a total change of outlook, however it is difficult to see where a major turn around in form is coming from, defeat to the hands of the Falcons could make that fortnight leading up to Bristol feel like an eternity.

Bristol Bears

For a team many expected to be rock bottom most of the season, one-dimensional and headed in one direction, Bristol have been a welcome breath of fresh air to the Premiership. The exiles London Welsh and Irish have been nothing but feeble in their return to the top tier in recent years, Bristol have not only wiped clean the fear that Championship newcomers can no longer compete, they’ve totally flipped the prediction on it’s head, and have forced the rest of the league to consider ring fencing, such is their competitive nature!

The Bears have been the full package, expansive play, points, risk takers and most importantly wins! It helps when you have a 1 million pound player. Whilst Charles Piutau has been impressive since returning from an unfortunate injury early in the campaign, the main stars have been Luatua and Afoa. The tighthead prop has rolled back the years with some dominant performances over younger, and shall we say less ‘experienced’ opposition in the scrum. Luatua meanwhile, has been a menace. Playing most of the season out of his natural position in the second row, the All Black utility man has exceled in the blue of Bristol. Winning 25 lineouts the ever-present is a huge reason Bristol can secure clean ball to play the way Pat Lam sets them up to do so. Special mention to Ian Madigan, many eyebrows were raised when Sextons former back up dropped down a level to play Championship rugby, oh how he’s been vindicated. An appearance for the Baa Baa’s, multiple defence splitting passes and a battle from within with Callum Sheedy, the Irishman has been exemplary and is another crucial cog in the Bristol Bears machine.

One concern will be the strength in depth and age of the squad. Once March rolls around and teams have their internationals back, Bristol will be hoping the likes of Afoa, Smith and Siale Piutau still have enough in their ageing legs to see them over the line. Worcester in March is a huge game, win, and they Bears should be feeling comfortable, defeat, and trips to Welford Road and Kingston Park look suddenly daunting.

Worcester

Intriguingly inconsistent would be a fair assessment of Worcester at the half way stage. Starting with so much promise, pushing Wasps to the brink and winning at Leicester has been mixed in with bad defeats at home to Newcastle and Northampton. A Challenge Cup break probably came at the wrong time for Worcester, a mauling of Bristol at Sixways, 52 – 7, should have kick started their campaign. Instead, the Warriors find themselves on a three game losing streak, without scoring more than 20 points in a game since that victory over Bristol.

Duncan Weir has been the one shining light that to date has been a bleak season. One of only two fly halfs with over 100 points halfway into the campaign, crossing the whitewash four times, the most scores for a standoff. the Scottish international is a huge reason Worcester are in, with the very least, a fighting chance of Premiership survival.

A huge piece of encouragement for the Warriors in the return of Ben Te’o, the England midfielder only contributing 80 minutes to Worcester’s campaign to date, and what a difference he made, squeezing Saracens to an encounter much tougher than they’d expected at Allianz Park.

It will be somewhere between close and difficult for Worcester to avoid the drop, whilst losing at home to Newcastle was damaging, winning away at Leicester was equally as positive. With one win in their last five, the Warriors need to find form fast if they are to avoid a relegation to the second tier.

Newcastle

Discipline and second half collapses have been the story of the season. Bottom of the pile and delicately close to Champions Cup elimination after three semi finals in 2018 and two wins from two in the opening stages of European competition is not exactly where the Falcons would have expected to be in January 2019.

Close defeats to Gloucester and Bristol were just that, victories would have seen the Falcons being talked up as a top four contender once more. Whilst it’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely, unless the Premierships most Northern team can find a way to convert the host of opportunities they are creating into bonus point wins. Any win would do, right now.

Simon Hammersley has been back to his best from 15, second to only Alex Goode in the Premiership on metres gained with three quarters of a century clocked up in half a season. Niki Goneva hasn’t forgotten where the try line is, and most notably, Mark Wilson has announced himself on the world stage with four stellar outings for England, and earned himself a new 4-year contract in the process, a huge boost for Newcastle.

Despite their slow start, it would be a real surprise to see Newcastle relegated. A top 7 finish still has to be the aim, and with the ‘tougher’ of opponents already battled at home, a chance to end the season strongly is one they’ll need to take. If Dean Richards still harbours hope of a push at top 7, his side need to give the likes of Johnny Williams, Sinoti Sinoti, so good they named him twice, and young speedster Adam Radwan ball in the areas to do damage. The return of Josh Matevasi, instrumental in a top 4 spot last season, is a huge boost. Expect Newcastle to steer clear of trouble.

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: Gallagher Premiership, Bristol Bears, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Sale Sharks, Wasps, Worcester Warriors
Written by: Morgan Lowrie
Follow: @MorganLowrie · @therugbymag

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