Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
London Irish surprise the pundits as the tries flow, a promising start for the new laws, Sam Simmonds and Schalk Brits impress mightily, and the shirt that doesn't wash
Irish take pride of place
Where to start? Fifty tries and 374 points were the bare, record-breaking statistics on the opening weekend of the 2017-18 Aviva Premiership season, but that fails to do justice to the drama within.
Gloucester ended Exeter’s 17-match unbeaten league run with Jason Woodward’s last-gasp try, Saracens put seven tries past Northampton within 30 first-half minutes, and Bath achieved only their second Premiership win at Welford Road despite losing three men to the bin in the closing stages.
Above all this, however, was London Irish’s 39-29 win over Harlequins, a performance that included some super long-range tries – despite hints that the newly promoted Exiles would be playing percentage rugby. Amazing what a bit of sun on your back can do.
There will be tougher days ahead for Irish – this Saturday at Exeter, for one – but already the bookies have made Worcester favourites for the drop, courtesy of the Warriors’ 35-8 tanking at Newcastle.
Irish’s 39 points surpassed all of their 22 match totals when they were last in the top flight two years ago and the calmness with which their coaching team greeted the result suggests that the thought of relegation is not remotely on their radar.
Marcus makes his mark
Harlequins captain James Horwill has highlighted Marcus Smith’s “level headedness” as a key attribute and the young Quin will need that in spades given the adulation gushing his way.
Smith became the seventh youngest starter in a Premiership match, at 18 years 200 days, but none of the other six played in the pivotal fly-half position.
A couple of passes went slightly awry but overall he gave a terrific performance in a losing cause, running or passing the ball on nearly every possession. For now, his kicking game remains a mystery, though we did see a drop-goal conversion when he decided not to risk Joe Marchant’s try being ruled out by a potential TMO review.
He went off reluctantly after taking a huge hit from Aseli Tikoirotuma and within a minute of his Quins debut, his replacement, Demetri Catrakilis, was carded for not rolling away. Things will get better, Demetri…
Sam is the man
Rugby World picked Sam Simmonds as one to watch in last month’s issue and he duly scored the first try of the Premiership season – one of two for him at Kingsholm on Friday night.
His power is unmissable and one brilliant rescue act, when he dashed back to field a Willi Heinz kick that looked set to produce a Gloucester try, showed that he has the pace needed to play international rugby.
There’s a lot of back-rows in the queue but Simmonds – who made 20 carries and 14 tackles against Gloucester – is certainly in that queue.
A joy to watch
The term ‘smiling assassin’ could have been for Schalk Brits. Six years after his Man of the Match display in the 2011 Premiership final, when he set up the decisive try for James Short, the 36-year-old Saracens hooker was up to his old tricks at Twickenham.
Brits tormented Northampton with his outrageous offloading skills and running lines, and in what he insists will be his final season he is showing no sign whatsoever of diminishing powers. He’s a delightful character and a joy to watch.
Crooked feeds live on!
How were the new laws for you? On initial evidence, the scrums are going to be quicker and cleaner but we’re still going to see crooked feeds! Scrum-halves are also taking time to get used to the idea that they can now align their left shoulder with the tunnel.
Nobody should pretend that the new scrum laws are anything other than the lesser of two evils. We’re moving ever further from the concept of a scrum as a contest for possession. But given the choice between collapses and resets versus getting the ball in and out rapidly, I know which I prefer.
As for the breakdown changes, the jury is out. There’s a danger that defending teams will decide the odds are too heavily stacked against them, now that you can’t kick the ball at a ruck and the tackler has lost the right to steal from the ‘wrong’ side.
If defenders don’t bother competing for breakdown ball and instead fan out in the defensive line, there could be less space than ever for the attacking side to work with. But the try-fest in round one has helped allay those fears. For now.
A Wasp in a hurry
Dan Robson has made the early running in the try-scoring stakes, his four tries in Wasps’ 50-35 defeat of Sale matching the feat of Gloucester scrum-half Elton Moncrieff against Bedford 17 years ago.
Nine of the 13 men to score four tries or more in a Premiership match are wingers, with Robson and Moncrieff joining centre Jeremy Guscott and full-back Geordan Murphy in being exceptions to the rule.
Robson’s sevens-style inside support lines, often running ahead of the ball, should bring him a heap more tries this season but forcing his way into Eddie Jones’s England squad is proving far more difficult.
What does Ulster’s pitch and Harlequins’ shirt have in common? They both have ugly dark blotches.
Apparently someone used the wrong paint when applying branding to the Kingspan Stadium turf during the Women’s World Cup. So Ulster’s historic Guinness Pro14 meeting with Cheetahs was played on a pitch with large dark green patches.
Quins’ shirt for their clash with London Irish looked like a dog’s breakfast – in fact, you can almost make out paw prints.
Why is that so many people turn into idiots when they have a TV camera pointing in their direction? Take the post-match analysis of the Leicester-Bath match on BT Sport. Fans behind the pundits pulled stupid faces or stuck their tongue out or sank towards the floor. How about trying this for a change: look normal and listen.
Chiefs hard done by
Jeremy Thrush’s second try during Gloucester’s 28-21 win over Exeter was the first poor decision of the season. The Kiwi lock was undoubtedly guilty of a double movement when planting the ball over the line and when even Rob Baxter is moved to (sugar-coated) criticism you know the officials have got it wrong.
Typically, Baxter was quick to point out the failings of his side that led to the incident in the first place. He always sees the bigger picture and that’s one reason why the Chiefs never dwell on injustices and win far more games than they lose.
Premiership stats of the week
Most tackles: Lewis Ludlow (Leicester), 26
Most carries: Courtney Lawes (Northampton) and Sione Kalamafoni (Leicester), 21
Most metres: Telusa Veainu (Leicester), 133
Most lineout wins: GJ van Velze (Worcester), 8
Most defenders beaten: George Ford (Leicester), 12
Most offloads: Will Addison (Sale), 5
Most breaks: Dan Robson (Wasps), 6