1. Glasgow finally click into gear
Glasgow have underachieved somewhat this season on the domestic front but on Saturday we finally saw a glimpse of what this star studded outfit can achieve.
Blessed with most of the major players in the Scottish rugby side at the moment it looked as though, for 50 minutes anyway, that the Warriors were going to find it difficult to break down the Scarlets’ resolute defence due to a combination of unforced errors and basic skill failures but in the final quarter they were simply untouchable.
Giant wing Taqele Naiyaravoro stole the show with a blistering hat-trick but this was a team performance built on physical supremacy both in the scrum and in the tackle area.
The dominant win was made all the sweeter with the news that Gregor Townsend has extended his contract to stay on as head coach until 2017 means that Glasgow have had a great week all in all.
2. Ulster the only light at the end of a dark Irish Tunnel
There is no doubt that the Irish provinces are struggling more than ever before in European competition and this must be of serious concern for their union. Every member of this year’s World Cup Squad plies their trade in Ireland, after Johnny Sexton’s return to Leinster, and a record of two wins from seven Champions Cup Matches this season is not the return that the Emerald Isle expects.
Thomond Park is no longer considered a fortress for Munster after both Connacht and now Leicester have won there in recent weeks in front of below average gates, and while Leinster have battled gamely against Bath and Toulon away from home, they were dismantled unceremoniously at home by Wasps and are effectively out of the competition after three matches; unheard of in Dublin.
Ulster, however, are a small ray of light on the current bind that Irish rugby is in, by shutting out Europe’s ultimate giants Toulouse on Friday night. Riddled with injuries, most would have written off the Ulstermen before they even took a step onto the field but with Ruan Pienaar pulling the strings, the men from Northern Ireland set about destroying the Toulouse defensive line to keep their qualification hopes alive.
3. Ford proves his nerve with Jones watching on
One of the past criticisms of George Ford has been his kicking ability under pressure and whether one day it could cost his club or country the chance of a big win. On Sunday night he nailed one of the biggest pressure kicks of his young career so far to disprove that theory.
Bath’s performance was infected with ill-discipline, poor decision-making and unforced errors throughout and Ford was not exempt from this, but as they scored in the dying embers of added time to level the scores, the Bath and England fly-half was left with a kick from the touchline to seal the victory.
Just to add some more pressure to the kick, Ford had missed an easier penalty earlier on in the match which would have handed the lead back to Bath and also the new England coach, Eddie Jones, was watching on with great interest in the stands.
Ford duly obliged by dissecting the posts to banish any clutch-kicking demons he may have encountered in the past.
4. Saracens’ Steam Train shows no sign of slowing down
Six from six in the Premiership and now three from three in Europe; Saracens are looking like an unstoppable force on the continent as well as in England.
One of the most impressive things about Sarries is that they have a game plan, they execute it so cleanly that by 60 minutes the match as a contest is over and they then get to rest their big name players to keep them fresh for the next challenge that lies ahead.
Most exciting of all, though, is the wealth of English talent that the men from the Allianz have on show. 10 of the starting line-up in Oyannax qualify to play for England and not only that, they are all putting their hands up to claim a place in Eddie Jones’ Elite Player Squad.
Owen Farrell played with pace and creativity to bely the pigeonhole that he has been put in by numerous onlookers of being defensive and more pragmatic in his approach. Maro Itoje never fails to impress whilst Chris Ashton’s hard work on his defensive game and positioning seem to be coming to fruition.
The biggest talking point though was Will Fraser, the openside flanker. This is a position that England have struggled to find a balance in for years now, and Fraser certainly put his hand up for inclusion yesterday. Commanding at the breakdown and a menace with ball in hand, Fraser found gaps easily and linked play with the greatest of ease. A superb all round performance.
5. Chiefs finally arrive at Europe’s top table
Although ‘performance of the weekend’ should rightfully be given to Ulster, Exeter Chiefs’ second half against Clermont was a very close second. 14-10 down at half time, the Chiefs had been carved open on more than one occasion and things were looking ominous.
Rob Baxter is a shrewd coach though and had the men from Sandy Park revert to what works for them week in and week out in the Premiership. Hitting the man in the lineout and driving the ball may not be a thing of beauty to most, but if it works then it must be utilised.
Thomas Waldrom added a further brace of tries to his hat trick from last weekend and Jack Nowell certainly didn’t look out of place at outside centre, a position that may become more regular to him with Henry Slade’s long term lay off.
There will now be calls for Waldrom to be included in the squad due to his try scoring record but I very much doubt Exeter’s style of play, which enables Waldrom to be on the end of these opportunities, will be recreated by Eddie Jones and his new look England set-up.
6. Scrummaging problems remain
At the weekend, there were numerous games of potentially exciting rugby spoilt by the fact the ball wasn’t in play due to the lottery of the scrum.
This is quite an obvious and ongoing matter but when will the rule makers of the game prioritise this issue, step in and shift the emphasis of the scrum back to getting the ball into open play rather than a chance for teams to win penalties?
When the ball was in play during the match at the Ricoh Arena between Wasps and Bath it was an exciting and open game to watch but every time there was a knock on or a scrum reset you could almost hear the collective sigh in the commentary box and stadium alike.
On average, 15 minutes a match is lost at scrum time and when a referee does finally buckle under the pressure and guess on whom to give a penalty to, you find yourself quite relieved that the game may actually continue.
Everyone is quick to blame the referees but the players have to accept some responsibility also. Game-playing and trickery is part of the front row union’s make-up and no one wants to see a less competitive scrum but then again, who wants to see 15 minutes of no rugby being played?
Two ideas: downgrade penalties to free kicks unless they are repeat offences or maybe more controversially, stop teams being pushed further than five metres. Five metres gives you front foot ball against a defence going backwards and encourages exciting, attacking rugby.
Surely these are worth a trial in the lower leagues, if nothing else?
ByAndy Daniel (@scrum5ive)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images