THE QUARTERLY REVIEW
The Premiership is back and the season is flying by already! Round 5 marked a quarter of the way through the regular season and we're beginning to get a sense of where each team is at this season. The World Cup stars are starting to return and teams will now have their key players for the rest of the season now that the Premiership no longer overlaps with the Six Nations. We've taken a look at where each team is at so far.
The midfield will be crucial for Bath's chances this season.
Finn Russell silences the Shed.
It has been a strong start to the season for Bath. They hit the quarter mark in the top 4 with three wins from five. Bath suffered a one point loss at home to the Tigers and a six point defeat away to Northampton, however it was the record victory at Gloucester that set tongues wagging. Bath demolished the Cherry and Whites in front of the Shed with a 27-45 win.
Bath recruited well last season by picking up a number of quality youngsters from Wasps and Worcester. Alfie Barbeary has been a carrying machine so far this season and has reliably crossed the gainline with most of his carries. Meanwhile, Ollie Lawrence was named Player of the Season last year and he has returned from the World Cup in stellar form with two tries against Gloucester. Bath are playing a lot of their rugby through their centres so far this and it will be fascinating to see how Finn Russell links up with Ojomoh/Redpath and Lawrence. Russell has already silence the Shed, he'll now have other clubs in his sight. This could be Bath's best midfield combination since Ford-Eastmond-Joseph.
New game plan with more kicking is delivering the same results so far.
Vakatawa and van Rensburg have made an immediate impact, however the forwards are still suffering.
Plenty of talent still to return from the World Cup including Malins, Genge, Luatua and Vui.
Bristol opened the season in excellent form and it looked like they may have finally turned a corner. Gabriel Ibitoye dazzled on the opening night in a victory over Leicester and that win was then backed up with points on the road in Northampton. However, Bristol have dovetailed since then. A loss at home to Harlequins followed and a drubbing by Sale Sharks at Ashton Gate compounded the frustration.
The headline recruitment for Bristol was Virimi Vakatawa after he was forced to quit rugby in France. Vakatawa is already making an immediate impact and linking up nicely with Benhard Janse van Rensburg in the midfield. Unfortunately, Bristol are already without first choice fly half AJ MacGinty who was injured in the first match. Callum Sheedy has stepped up well with three assists from the boot in the loss against Exeter, however it is an inevitable disruption to Pat Lam's plans. The assists from Sheedy have symbolised a change in game plan from Bristol over the summer. The Bears are kicking the ball far more than they used to. Last season Bristol kicked the ball away 22 times on average per game. That was the fewest in the league. This season Bristol have kicked it away 34.8 times per game which is the third most.
Bristol are still yet to see Max Malins and Ellis Genge return from the World Cup as are Steven Luatua and Chris Vui, however the result against Sale should set alarm bells ringing. Performances need to sharpen up quickly or Pat Lam could come under pressure.
Exeter 2.0 has clicked immediately
More running out wide with Hodge, Wyatt and Feyi-Waboso
Emphasis on the scrum with Sio and Painter as well as Tuima, Pearson, Roots and Fisilau in the engine room.
Exeter have been the surprise of the season so far. With an exodus of their top talent over the summer to France, many had low expectations this season for Exeter 2.0 to materialise so quickly. Rob Baxter has been tinkering away over the summer and he has injected his side with fresh young talent and new ideas. The Chiefs have thumped both Premiership finalists already this season with a combined points difference of +98 against Saracens and Sale Sharks. Admittedly both sides faced a number of stars absent at the World Cup, however they were still impressive results nonetheless due to the inexperience of Exeter's XV.
Henry Slade's England snub has seen the outside centre step up as a key lieutenant in this Exeter 2.0. Slade is in a rich vein of form and he has been crucial in setting loose Exeter's electric and youthful backline talent of Josh Hodge, Tommy Wyatt and Immanuel Feyi-Wabaso. Despite an unfortunate injury to Hodge, these three have been symbolic of Exeter 2.0 which has involved a lot more running from deep by the Chiefs rather than the tight forward phase play we have grown used to seeing. Exeter are the first and only side to surpass 2000 metres run this season.
However, the Chiefs haven't chucked away their phase play either. Bristol were forced to make 220 tackles against Exeter in Round 4. The talent in the pack has been just as impressive. The sizeable Rus Tuima put in a man of the match performance whilst Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau have both been industrious in the backrow. Baxter has also placed a renewed emphasis on the scrum which has been dominant with Scott Sio and Ehren Painter putting pressure on their opposition.
With other clubs now seeing their international stars return, the season could begin to get a bit trickier for the Chiefs.
Zach Mercer hits the ground running too hard.
Is next year already Gloucester's year?
Pressure builds on George Skivington
Next year is always Gloucester's year. We're a quarter of the way through the season and already it is looking like it will be next year, yet again. Gloucester started the season in true dramatic fashion with an 82nd minute try from Jamal Ford-Robinson to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a one point victory over Harlequins. It has been relatively downhill from there though. Gloucester have two wins from five but also just two wins from their last eleven Premiership matches. The Cherry and Whites have suffered two score defeats in their last three games including a record home defeat to their bitter rivals, Bath. The loss to Bath was a humiliating display in front of their own supporters and pressure will begin to build on George Skivington as he embarks on his fourth season at the club.
Zach Mercer has made an immediate impression with his arrival at the the club. Mercer has a phenomenal work rate and was topping carries and defenders beaten for the first few rounds. The Number 8 was also beating most of his rivals for per 80 stats. Unfortunately Mercer picked up an ankle injury against Saracens and could be out for a while which is a further blow for Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites suffered a busy physio room last season and it has already looked crowded this year with Ackermann, Hastings and Rapava-Ruskin also out.
Gloucester have overly invested in their backline over the years, perhaps to the detriment of their second row. Jonny May, Louis Rees-Zammit and Santiago Carreras are all in the process of returning from the World Cup, however Gloucester will need a lot more than a pair of wingers to put them closer to the top 4 again.
Top of the table in the first quarter
Tyrone Green opens the season in style
Marcus Smith returns to keep the show on the road
Harlequins have begun the season in true Harlequins fashion. They have already entertained the league so far with Tyrone Green's spectacular finishing ability. The South African winger has scored two audacious tries mid-air. Green had no right to score either of them. The first was from a Marcus Smith crossfield kick and the second was a brilliant individual effort.
There has been a slight reshuffling of the deck chairs over the summer with Tabai Matson moving upstairs and Billy Millard taking the reins again. There doesn't appear to be any drop off in performance. Alex Dombrandt has been as impressive as ever with his fine angles and deft touches. Fellow Cardiff Met alumni, Luke Northmore, also looked impressive until an injury in Round 2.
Marcus Smith returns from international duty and now the Harlequins party will really start to get going. Quins sit top of the table right now and the hope is that their fine form will continue as the weeks go by.
Same old Leicester; new coach.
Impossible to make a judgement on their first quarter due to the number of absent internationals.
The East Midlands Derby will be a key gauge.
This season marks the beginning of a new era for Leicester. Dan McKellar has been finding his feet as the new Head Coach of Leicester following the departure of Steve Borthwick, Kevin Sinfield, Aled Walters and Richard Wigglesworth last season. McKellar has already emphasised the identity of the club will remain with a forward, kick chase and set piece orientated philosophy. That has been clear to see from his first few games in charge.
It is hard to make too much of an assessment on Leicester just yet. McKellar has been without Dan Cole, Ollie Chessum, George Martin, Freddie Steward, Ben Youngs, Anthony Watson, Jack van Poortvliet, Handre Pollard, Jasper Wiese and Julian Montoya due to a mix of World Cup duty and injury. Therefore it's of no surprise that Leicester currently sit 8th in the table.
Next up is the East Midlands Derby at home against their Northampton nemeses. McKellar has already labelled this as a must win match. Pundits will be able to make a far stronger judgement about where the Tigers are at following this match.
New Newcastle fail to get going
Codling's philosophy will take time to become clear
Carreras takes flight
It has been a tough start for Newcastle who are yet to secure a win this season. The Falcons have come close in their first three games but ultimately they were edged out on each of the occasions. A two point loss at home to Northampton was the most agonising. It has been downhill from there since that defeat with a further two losses by 28 and 38 points against Harlequins and Saracens respectively.
A poor start from Falcons was to be expected with Alex Codling coming in as their new Head Coach and a long list of new players replacing the old departing contingent. It's the beginning of a new era for Newcastle and it will take time for the team to bed in. It is still unclear what Codling's coaching philosophy looks like. There are hopes around a number of young players including Guy Pepper and Jamie Blamire. Adam Radwan also remains a dangerous threat on the wing albeit he only has one try to his name so far this season.
The Falcons have been waiting for their Argentinian contingent to return from the World Cup, however it was not the return they would have been hoping for. It has been revealed that Mateo Carreras will be joining Bayonne at the end of the season on a three year deal. The Argentinian flyer has been one of the most exciting aspects of Newcastle in recent years and this news will put a huge dampener on the mood.
Scrum and defence look to be fixed
Attack remains at the core of Northampton's playing style
Pearson already ripping up trees
Northampton had a slow start to the season with losses in their first two matches including a home defeat to Bristol. However, the omens have been promising for the Saints. The major change over the summer saw Rugby League's Lee Radford join the club as the new defence coach. Despite scoring the second most points last season, Northampton also conceded the second most tries. There are already visible improvements to Northampton's defence and a number of players have significantly bulked up in the off season. Northampton's backrow has looked dynamic and physical with Angus Scott-Young beginning to resemble a younger Tom Wood whilst Tom Pearson has been carving up lines that he is increasingly being assoicated with.
Another area that Northampton have shored up is the scrum. The Saints are the only side in the league with 100% success rate on their own feed despite facing both Sale and Exeter who tend to have formidable scrums. The scrum and defence have long been considered a weakness for Northampton. If they can combine these improvements with their attacking finesse, then the Saints could prove to be a force to be reckoned with.
However, at their heart, Northampton are still a dangerous attacking team. Northampton already have the second most metres made and the joint most defenders beaten this season. George Hendy has been a revelation so far with his unorthodox running style. Meanwhile Fin Smith is growing into the fly half jersey as each week goes by.
Physicality, physicality, physicality
Strong foundation for the internationals to build on
Jean-Luc du Preez could be a huge loss
It's been a topsy turvy season for Sanderson's Sharks so far. Sale sit in second place and have evaded any major slip ups. The Sharks have four wins from five, however they were demolished by Exeter Chiefs in a 47-0 defeat at Sandy Park. The Sharks won't be too concerned though as there were a number of third, fourth or even fifth choice players at hooker and in the backrow for that game. There are plenty of reinforcements still to come.
Sale have renewed their traditional physicality this season with 88 dominant tackles in the first five games. This is 30 more than the next best club. New signing Ernst van Rhyn has has picked up the mantle from Jono Ross as the top tackler in the league as well as recording the most dominant tackles. Unfortunately Jean-Luc du Preez suffered a leg injury early on in Round 1 against Northampton. The absence of du Preez will be worrying for Sanderson as he is the brute of all brutes in that Sale pack.
The Sale squad have largely held the fort whilst the internationals have been away. Sanderson can now call upon Tom Curry, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi, Bevan Rodd and Agustin Creevy. New signing Luke Cowan-Dickie has also only just returned from injury.
Saracens cling onto the pack
Willis and Christie two of the shining lights
Rugby World Cup stars now begin the charge for the top four
Saracens have had a tricky start to the season with thirteen players on World Cup duty at some point including nine until the very final weekend of the tournament. With so many players away this has meant a slow start to the season for Saracens who failed to pick up a single point in their first two matches of the Premiership. This included a thumping 65-10 defeat to Exeter down at Sandy Park.
The London club have fought back with many of their internationals returning for the match against Leicester Tigers. This resulted in a convincing 32-17 victory over a depleted Tigers. Whilst not the most convincing start to the season, Saracens are in sixth and still in touch with the pack, unlike Leicester.The absence of the internationals has allowed other players in the squad to shine. Tom Willis has had a free run in the Number 8 shirt which sees him top the number of metres for the club as well as three tries so far this season. Menanwhile Andy Christie has looked a menace in defence.
Saracens remain just five points from the top of the table and their returning internationals will now get their season going. The return of Maro Itoje, Ben Earl, Owen Farrell and Jamie George just to name a few will see Saracens likely climb the table. There is no overlap with the Six Nations this season, so Saracens now have their star names around for the rest of the season.