Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
The battle of the Sams, Simmonds v Underhill, niggle at the Ricoh, the All Blacks' near perfection, Israel Folau's hot streak, Dragons firing and Philadelphia spectacle goes flat
Handbags with edge
After the drabness of the Newcastle-Saracens match (see below), how refreshing to see the bite and niggle of the Wasps-Harlequins clash at the Ricoh.
Perhaps it’s contentious to say so, but the contretemps between James Haskell and Joe Marler was compelling theatre, more so because such outward aggression (by Haskell) is rarely seen in this modern era of multiple camera angles, TMOs and unforgiving disciplinary panels.
In short, Marler provoked the Wasps flanker by tugging on his scrum cap and then squirting water at him, and Haskell wasn’t one for turning a blind eye. Marler was fortunate that Haskell alone was yellow-carded.
The incident was part of a fantastic match of thrust and counter-thrust and once again, Quins centre Joe Marchant gave notice that he’s ready to challenge for England’s No 13 shirt.
Just as impressive, Marcus Smith, Quins’ 18-year-old fly-half, once more looked completely at ease on a demanding stage. He won Man of the Match and you start to wonder just what this season might hold in store for him.
We’re two years out from the next World Cup, so who should get first dibs on the England No 7 shirt? There’s a hell of a battle going on.
Shooting up the list is Sam Simmonds, who isn’t even playing seven at Exeter but instead is used at No 8 where he can get his hands on the ball more often.
The 22-year-old has the pace of a threequarter – he played centre until the age of 17 – and the strength of a back-row, and his explosive power from the base is remarkable.
He’s already made more than 50 carries in the Aviva Premiership this season and at nearly four metres a carry, he’s giving Exeter the go-forward we’ve come to associate with Thomas Waldrom.
But Waldrom wouldn’t have made the defender-scattering clean breaks that Simmonds has, and when you throw in the younger man’s four tries and one assist, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive start to a season.
Admiring Simmonds’s step that helped bring him his second try at Worcester on Saturday, ex-England lock Mouritz Botha likened him to a bigger version of Schalk Brits.
Who knows whether Simmonds is in Eddie Jones’s thoughts. It’s not as if the England coach is short of options.
Sam Underhill, 21, made his Premiership debut for Bath and produced what Ugo Monye called “one of the most impressive destructive performances I’ve seen. Any kids listening to this, watch that performance – it’s picture perfect”.
Underhill made 23 tackles and officially one turnover in less than 70 minutes, but the thumping intensity of his hits was worth several more turnovers because he sometimes causes the ball-carrier to spill the ball.
Both he and Simmonds are around 6ft in height and neither are presently lineout options. With the similarly built Billy Vunipola installed at No 8, the issue for England is whether, at a time when the lineout is assuming greater importance, they are willing to forego a tall, athletic jumper in the back row – as they once had with Tom Croft.
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A few chinks had recently appeared in New Zealand’s armour, or so we had been led to believe. On Saturday they made a nonsense of such talk, dismissing a Springbok side that had gone unbeaten all year by 57-0 at Albany.
It was the All Blacks’ biggest-ever victory over South Africa and of their 24 more emphatic Test wins, only the 60-0 rout of Ireland in 2012 can even begin to compare.
Whether or not Beauden Barrett kicks his goals is utterly irrelevant when he and the All Blacks play like this. The Hurricanes pivot was involved in the pick of the eight tries, tearing up the pitch to catch up with Nehe Milner-Skudder after he got an interception. Barrett took the pass from the winger and then returned the favour with a delicious reverse pass that foxed the two covering defenders.
It was a wow moment but just one of many on a sobering day for the rest of world rugby.
Folau’s hot streak
Israel Folau is well and truly over his quiet spell. Against Argentina in Canberra, the Wallaby full-back grabbed his fourth try double of the year following braces against Fiji, Scotland and Italy in June.
He bagged ten tries from 15 Tests in 2013 and he’s matched that tally from just seven Tests so far this year. One more score will give him the outright Wallaby record for a calendar year that he currently shares with Lote Tuqiri (ten tries from 12 Tests in 2004).
The Pumas led 13-10 at half-time but yet again faded to lose 45-20. They missed 34 tackles.
You have to wonder whether the demanding travel schedule is playing a part and equally, the strength of their bench is clearly not what it could be, because so many of their players are engaged in European club rugby and not available under current Argentinian policy.
Since beating South Africa in Salta last year, they have lost all but two of their 15 Tests – with the wins coming against Japan and Georgia. They are a much better team than recent results suggest but should they think again about allowing off-shore players to represent them? Yes.
For the first time in eight years, the Dragons were the only Welsh region to register a victory. It came courtesy of a 21-8 defeat of Connacht that was even better than it sounds, because injuries to Tyler Morgan and Zane Kirchner prevented a makeshift back-line from building on a 21-3 half-time advantage.
The first try was a beauty, with Kirchner and Jack Dixon inter-linking, Elliot Dee offloading ‘round the back’ and Harri Keddie putting Hallam Amos away down the left.
Having a new (artificial) pitch is doing wonders for the now WRU-owned region and let’s hope local supporters get behind them in numbers after so many years of mediocrity.
For all the commendable community coaching work that took place in the Philadelphia region last week, Premiership Rugby’s latest excursion stateside must be viewed as a flop.
The attendance of 6,271 for the Newcastle-Saracens match at the Talen Energy Stadium was well short of expectations and unfortunately the match was a stinker.
Chris Wyles’s early try aside, there was little to inspire as both sides struggled to handle a sweaty ball or come to terms with the heat and humidity.
John Mitchell, who quit as USA coach in May to take a job with South Africa’s Blue Bulls, has argued that taking occasional Premiership matches to rugby backwaters like Pennsylvania is a “waste of time” and that the focus should be on areas where the game is better established.
Certainly the quality of the match becomes ever more important if you are dealing with a new audience, so what a pity that those Americans who attended or tuned in at the weekend didn’t see rather more razzle-dazzle.
London Irish have come back to earth with a bump since upsetting Harlequins in round one of the Premiership. A heavy defeat at Exeter is one thing, a trouncing at Sale quite another.
Scotland international Blair Cowan didn’t help their cause at the AJ Bell Stadium when, having already been sin-binned for a technical offence, he returned to stick a forearm on Jono Ross’s head as the Sale man lay prone at a ruck.
A senseless action that saw Cowan sent off and Irish hampered for the remaining dozen minutes.
It’s not sweet to me
Enough now, I’m starting to crack. The endless playing of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline at sports venues is wearing thin.
According to Wikipedia, the Sixties hit is played after every Carolina Panthers home win, by Northern Ireland’s football team, by Castleford Tigers, Sydney Swans, Oxford United and Twenty20 matches.
It’s certainly popped up at rugby events plenty of times, including New Zealand’s match with South Africa at the weekend. Well, it’s time to change the record. How about Happy House by Siouxsie and the Banshees? She even wore a Harlequin outfit in the video.
Just something without the words ‘sweet’ and ‘Caroline’ in it.