LEICESTER, ENGLAND – A slow week for the most part in the Premiership, but here at Rugby Wrap Up we have your weekend recap and look ahead. Feel free to makes some noise in the comments section if you want to chat about something we missed, or disagree with a point or three.
1. The East Midlands Derby, or Why I Love the Premiership
By now it’s almost an old cliché to state that Super Rugby has the best quality sides in the world, while the Premiership is the most exciting league. Last weekend’s matchup between the Tigers and Saints demonstrated the bone-crunching intensity that comes from truly local rivalries and two of the Northern Hemisphere’s most storied sides lived up to their billing with a game that really turned on in the last 20 minutes. Though the first half was marked by some disjointed play, and there were no spectacular solo efforts to match George North’s brilliance in Australia, the ferocity exhibited in rucks and scrums was almost unparalleled. Leicester dominated set play throughout, which provided them with one of their only outlets for attack, as their regularly scheduled offensive firepower went missing. Northampton put in a tremendous shift as well, with some flowing rugby that lacked only clinical finishing. Truly, a match for English rugby to hang its hat on.
2. New Scrums Working?
Though different coaches (such as Leicester’s Richard Cockerill) expressed dismay at the prospect of yet another new scrum engagement sequence, to this observer’s eye, the new call gets everything almost exactly right. Professional scrums had evolved in both power and finesse to the point that a true “hit” was no longer a viable option moving forward. The number of collapsed scrums during the Six Nations was frankly appalling to watch. Judging by the player’s reactions following yet another reset, they were no more pleased with the state of affairs. Though resets remain an intermittent issue, scrum penalties have now become what they should be: the result of one team’s dominance, rather than happenstance and how the wind is blowing in the referee’s hair that day. Thus far, “crouch, bind, set” looks like a winner, and we can only hope for the sequence to be the long term fix players and fans have been craving for years now.
3. O’Connor to Sarries
Rumors surfaced this week that Australia international James O’Connor may be forced into a move abroad to Saracens after having being “released” from his Wallabies contract. The young man’s talent is undeniable. Even with Australia’s weakened state, it is not every player that could take the reins at fly-half and do a creditable job at such a young age. However, his character issues always seem to surface at the least opportune moments, and it is perhaps telling that the organization most familiar with his trials and tribulations was the first to deny that he had a future with the side. O’Connor’s career may yet be rescued, and many in the media feel that with his talent, it is inevitable that he will get at least one more chance somewhere in world rugby. Looking deeper into the issue, we must question whether Saracens is a fitting location for such a troubled star. At the moment, things are humming along nicely at Allianz Park, and the side certainly has no shortage of viable back options. The risk of destabilizing a squad that has done so well early in the season with a disruptive influence cannot and should not be discounted. O’Connor will not have the upper hand in any negotiations, and it would be good for his career if he got it back on track somewhere with less immediate pressure to perform.
4. The Week Ahead
This weekend sees a break in Premiership action as sides turn to Europe to begin their campaigns. Check out RugbyWrapUp’s Heineken Cup previews for our predictions, but in the meantime, know that at least some English sides have a strong chance of advancing in their respective competitions. Leicester will be setting their sights high this year, for though domestic glory is satisfying, a European championship has eluded the Tigers’ grasp for far too long. Northampton will likely make a mark in the competition if they can survive their “Group of Death,” while Sarries will be a force to be reckoned with as well. Last year’s beaten quarterfinalists Harlequins would be happy to reverse last year’s results and scrape through the group stages while dominating in the knock out phase. Somewhat ironically, given the English sides’ disruptive influence in negotiations, this year could be a very productive one for English sides, in what will likely be the last version of this incarnation of the European Championship. Enjoy it while you can.