- Champions start strongly
- England fly halves impress
In the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015, this Aviva Premiership campaign is set to be an extremely intriguing one. Indeed, the competition kicked off this weekend and produced some enthralling encounters.
Here are five talking points from the opening round of matches.
1. Saints raise standards
Northampton Saints’ maiden title last season meant a huge deal to the club – you only have to picture the hordes of supporters that welcomed their team coach back from Twickenham after the final to realise that. Even so, Jim Mallinder’s charges are not satisfied with isolated success. They are desperate for a repeat.
An eight-try, 53-6 defeat of Gloucester Rugby on Friday evening at Franklin’s Gardens was a significant statement. Led by Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and American action-man Samu Manoa, their pack looked dynamic and destructive. Front-rowers Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero marshalled a rock-solid set-piece and some hungry backs gobbled up chances at will.
Rather than back-slapping, Saints have clearly endured a pain-staking pre-season enhancing fitness and skill levels. Such a relentless attitude is already serving them well.
2. Patience is a virtue
On the wrong end of Northampton’s mechanical efficiency were David Humphreys’ Gloucester as a raft of high-profile new signings – including internationals Richard Hibbard, John Afoa and James Hook – struggled to gel.
It was the same story for London Welsh. The side that made 25 additions over the summer missed 22 tackles, Exeter Chiefs making them pay for defensive uncertainty with a 52-0 thrashing.
In both cases, settled sides made cohesion pay. Familiarity and better performances should come at Kingsholm and at the Kassam Stadium eventually. The supporters of Gloucester and Welsh just have to hope it happens sooner rather than later.
3. England’s fly halves queue up
Stuart Lancaster hoped that the World Cup would act as inspiration for his England players. Already he has been proved correct, most prominently in the crucial position of fly half. Stephen Myler began a happy trend on Friday evening with a fine display.
George Ford then came back from a shoulder operation to kick 19 points and set up both of Bath Rugby’s tries in a 29-20 defeat of Danny Cipriani’s Sale Sharks. Freddie Burns also managed Leicester Tigers very well during their 36-17, bonus-point win over Newcastle Falcons.
Not to be outdone, Owen Farrell – the holder of the white number 10 jersey for most of the past three years – grabbed an assist and two crucial conversions in a 19-minute cameo from the bench, edging Saracens past Wasps 34-28.
4. Wingmen run riot
George North and Vereniki Goneva registered blockbuster hat-tricks on a high-scoring first weekend, but there were also a glut of scores for England-qualified flyers.
Bath’s siege of Salford was built on tries from exciting youngster Anthony Watson, who collected Ford’s cross-kick, and Fijian-born British Army soldier Semesa Rokodoguni.
Ugo Monye got Harlequins off and running towards their 20-15 result against London Irish and former England Sevens star Ollie Lyndsay-Hague glided clear later on.
Wasp Christian Wade scampered in for a predatory brace in the first game of the Twickenham London Double Header too, responding to a treble from prolific Saracen David Strettle and another close-range effort by Chris Ashton.
5. Chiefs conveyor belt keeps on giving
Wing Jack Nowell and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie – mini rugby teammates from Penzance and Newlyn – earned involved with the senior England set-up last season and Exeter’s Academy is churning out more South West talent.
Henry Slade and Sam Hill, two other members of England Under 20’s Junior World Championship-winning outfit in 2013, started as a midfield combination for Rob Baxter on Sunday. Both were outstanding in attack and defence.
Hill dotted down for Exeter’s fourth try to punctuate a display of hard running that featured four tackle-busts and three clean breaks, while Slade showcased his accurate distribution.
Blindside flanker Dave Ewers, another England Saxon, scored as well, racking up 17 tackles and eight muscular carries on the way. Finally, 21 year-old wing Jack Arnott sprinted clear with his first touch, precisely three minutes after joining the fray.