LONDON, ENGLAND – Lots of action this weekend, both on and off the pitch, so we’ll get to it with the Aviva Premiership Talking Points and look ahead.
1) Welcome news for Americans
More welcome news for American rugby fans came late this weekend as London Wasps signed American centre Andrew Suniula to a contract this weekend. In the wake of Luke Hume’s trial with Gloucester and Blaine Scully’s trial contract with the Leicester Tigers, it appears as though a legitimate developmental path may finally be fully opening up for American players. Though currently the opportunities of Tier 2 players are unfortunately limited by the laws of the English game, with the international winds of change blowing through the Heineken Cup, and television revenue increasing rapidly, it is almost certainly only a matter of time before unions have to bow to the inevitable and remove such restrictions, if only to ensure that their teams have access to affordable talent. In my very first article for RugbyWrapUp, I wrote about how American rugby may be benefited by following the developmental footsteps of American soccer. The increased consistency of American players signing abroad could be the first manifestation of this trend. American soccer had to undergo a long and arduous fight to ensure that our players were respected abroad. However, individuals such as Alexi Lalas, Brian McBride, and eventually Clint Dempsey proved that it was merely a matter of finding the right talent and consistently exposing it to the rigors of the most difficult leagues in the world. Though American fans must still hope for a professional domestic league in the near future, in the immediate present, it is always welcome news to hear that local talent is appreciated abroad.
2) Looking up (and down) the table
American football fans are rushing to judgment on their respective teams after a mere four games. While such action may be premature in terms of the Aviva Premiership, some trends are unquestionably becoming evident as we approach the quarter pole in the upcoming weekend. Though advanced metrics are not yet present in rugby in the same fashion that allows baseball fans to obsess over the positioning of each individual player and the respective value that they provide their teams, one useful tool is open to rugby pundits: point differential. Popular statistical (and barroom, depending on the side you support) theory holds that early in a season, point differential can be a better indication of what the future holds than the results posted thus far. This is good news for London Wasps, who despite possessing a lone win among their four matches, actually have a positive point differential. However, Newcastle Falcons look as though they may come crashing down to earth soon, having conceded 40 more points than they have scored, yet flying (relatively) high in eighth place. Gloucester must be the biggest disappointment of the season, having scored a mere 62 points and conceded 103, while languishing in tenth place due to a fortuitous turn of the refereeing fates against Northampton. Unsurprisingly, Saracens lead the way in point differential as they do in the league, collecting 78 more points than their opponents en route to 3 bonus point wins out of 4.
3) The Week Ahead
The Friday night fixture is probably a die-hards only affair, as Bath lines up against Sale. George Ford continues to be in sparkling form for the visitors, scoring a try and converting four kicks last weekend as Bath secured a bonus point in the first half against the hapless London Irish. Saturday however brings the welcome treat of Leicester versus Northampton, as the Tigers will catch their first glimpse of George North and the new-look Saints. Leicester will likely smile on the fixture list that allows them to have this first meeting in the friendly confines of Welford Road, but they will be up against it, still lacking first choice players such as Manu Tuilangi. Though Marcus Ayerza is not often spoken of as a missing piece early this season due to the general excellence of the Tigers pack, his presence in the Argentine ranks during the Rugby Championship has forced Leicester to trot out Boris Stankovich on the bench. If all that isn’t enough to whet the appetite, it marks the first meeting between the East Midlands rivals since the Aviva Premiership Final in May. Northampton will surely be looking for revenge, while Leicester will need no more motivation than their ever-present desire to knock their rivals down a peg. It should be an amazing clash, a not-miss affair in a weekend a bit short on compelling match ups.
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