The Scrumdown - Aviva Premiership & Pro14 roundup
Rugby: Week 1 in the Aviva Premiership and the Pro14
Aviva Premiership – Try bonanza as Saracens and Wasps go bananas, London Irish surprise and Exeter learn to live with a target on their back
You have to go back to October 30th for Exeter Chiefs’ last Premiership defeat, but the champions fell to a surprise week 1 loss to perennially inconsistent Gloucester. The Chief’s looked like they’d stolen a draw late on when Woodburn poached the ball and scampered into the corner, but Gloucester did not give up. Billy Twelvetrees found some space down the right and put away Jason Woodward for a memorable 28-21 victory.
Things are looking up for the cherry and whites under new coach Johan Ackermann. There were concerns for Gloucester after they lost key personnel in the summer, but they looked strong on Friday night. The key for them will be consistency and away form. As for Exeter, they won’t panic. They lost 6 of their first 8 games last term, and came back to win the title. But, if they want to replicate that feet this year they’ll have to learn to deal with the target on their back.
Saracens looked completely untouchable against a sorry Northampton side. 7 first half tries saw the European champions 41-3 up at half time. Schalk Brits, 36 in the summer, rolled back the years and gave a perfect display of what is expected of a modern hooker. They eventually won the game 55-24, and unsurprisingly look like the team to beat this term. Northampton will have to sort themselves out and quick, or they will find themselves out of contention in no time at all. It’s early days, but Saints coach Jim Mallinder is under fire, and he’ll need to get his team at least in the top 8 if he wishes to keep his job come the end of the season.
Newcastle Falcons seem to be going the other way at the moment. Having come very close to playing Champions Cup rugby last season, they will be looking to go one better and make the top 6 come May. They got off to the perfect start at the weekend, downing a depleted Worcester Warriors on Friday night in easy fashion, running out 35-8 victors. Coach John Wells will fancy his chances of picking off some of the bigger teams this season. As for Worcester, things look bleak. They lost their superstar centre Ben Te’o early on with what looks like a nasty injury, and are sure to struggle this season with competition so high and with their squad that much smaller than others.
The Warriors’ plight was not helped by newly promoted London Irish, who surprised everyone with a fantastic 39-29 victory over Harlequins. They scored some tremendous tries, and looked confident, playing some exquisite rugby. Harlequins were guilty of coming out of the blocks slowly, and may have underestimated Irish, like we all did. Quins will need to bounce back quickly at home to Gloucester next week, whilst Irish will hope to pick up more surprise victories on their way to safety.
Wasps continued where they left off last season, scoring 7 tries in a 50-35 win over Sale, with scrum half Dan Robson scoring 4. They didn’t have it all their own way, with Sale, who scored 5 tries of their own, pulling to within 8 points at one point, but Wasps put a couple more tries away to give them daylight. Not much to read from this game, as both defences looked sloppy, but it was a highly entertaining encounter nonetheless, and a game that brings up 20 straight wins for Wasps in Coventry.
The weekend closed at Welford Road, as Leicester took on Bath, with George Ford starting for the Tigers against his old club. Tuilagi scored upon his return from injury early on, but Bath scored 3 quick tries in the first half, including an interception from a Ford offload, and despite a flurry of yellow cards and tries that saw the blue, black and whites finish with 13 players, they held on to win 27-23 in their first victory at Welford Road since 2003. Bath were inconsistent last term, and their away form was patchy at best. They will be very happy with the win. Leicester shouldn’t panic, but they will be disappointed not to defeat their old enemy.
All in all, 50 tries were scored on a thrilling opening weekend. Fans will hope for more of the same this coming weekend.
Pro 14 – Irish contingent and champions Scarlets look strong, as the South Africans struggle up north.
It was cruel to send the Southern Kings to Llanelli for their first Pro14 game. It’s been a fraught build up for the league new boys, with only 15 registered players when the expansion was announced. With that being said, the champions looked fantastic, running in 8 tries in the 57-10 demolition. To be fair to the South African’s, they led for a time, and were only 4 points adrift at halftime, but they’ll need to work on their fitness and depth if they are to compete with the best of the Celts.
The Cheetahs fared better at Ulster, but the Belfast outfit still romped away to a 42-19 victory. The Cheetah’s looked threatening in attack, but were undone by some slick rugby, and they tired towards the end. The league expansion has been a whirlwind, with very little preparation time for the newcomers. It will be interesting to see how they fair at home, and it really does add to the intrigue for the season.
Elsewhere, Leinster looked in great touch, recording a convincing 39-16 win against the Dragons in Newport, and Munster coasted to a 34-3 victory over Treviso. Fellow Italian team Zebre looked pretty decent, but were knocked off 22-13 by Ospreys, who will hope for improved performances as the season progresses. Glasgow looked to replicate the form that won them the title in 2016 at Connacht in dreadful conditions. They scraped by with a 12-18 win. And finally, Edinburgh won 10-20 in Cardiff in Richard Cockerill’s first game in charge.
*Title picture courtesy of Sky Sports