Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
Henry Slade shines as Chiefs power on, Nathan Hughes's act of kindness, Finn Russell's perfect 16, Matt Banahan chasing a record and Barrett-esque magic from Henry Trinder
Slade the blade
In 14 of his 20 Tests as England’s head coach, Eddie Jones has chosen Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph as his centre combination. Luther Burrell, Elliot Daly and Ben Te’o have all had a go in the 13 shirt but Joseph has been his go-to man – up until now.
The only other player given a start at 13 is Henry Slade, who paired up with Alex Lozowski and then Piers Francis outside George Ford in this summer’s tour to Argentina – giving England three genuine playmakers.
With so many England regulars unavailable because of the Lions tour, that was by necessity a tour of experiment. It will be fascinating to see how much that impressive 2-0 series win impacts upon selection this autumn.
TV pundit David Flatman called the 24-year-old Slade “by head and shoulders the best player of the weekend” and it appears that the Exeter player is getting back to the form he showed prior to December 2015, when he broke his leg against Wasps.
Rugby World called for Slade to be the first name on England’s team sheet at the start of the Jones era. There’s nothing he can’t do and that includes the physical stuff. Things have moved on but two years after the world looked his oyster, Slade – who has a ludicrously low seven caps – could come again.
Billy Vunipola’s injury (see below) brought an added edge to the battle of the No 8s at Sandy Park, Sam Simmonds v Nathan Hughes. Sadly, the contest never really materialised because Simmonds was hurt tackling his adversary early in the game and was carried off.
It was wonderful to see Hughes’s instant concern and care for Simmonds, ensuring he stayed still and in a safe position in case of potential neck damage. Rob Baxter praised Hughes’s “fantastic reaction” during his in-match comments to BT Sport commentator Nick Mullins.
Italy’s two professional clubs, Benetton Treviso and Zebre, regularly get a kicking from the media and fans alike for their poor results. So how refreshing to see both sides win at the weekend.
Treviso backed up their shock success at Edinburgh with a 16-6 defeat of the Ospreys on home soil, while Zebre stunned Southern Kings with a six-try, 43-17 triumph at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Four matches into the Guinness Pro14 season and Michael Bradley’s ‘no-hopers’ are looking down on the Ospreys.
There were some super long-range, counter-attacking tries across the English and Celtic leagues. Lee Jones’s for Glasgow against Munster, Josh Bassett’s for Wasps at Exeter, and Will Talbot-Davies’s for the Dragons at Ulster all stood out.
But pride of place has to go to Billy Twelvetrees’s score for Gloucester against Worcester. The try was almost entirely down to Henry Trinder’s dazzling run that combined beautiful footwork and body deception, a shrewd speed adjustment to wait for support, and a final over-the-shoulder offload to Twelvetrees having received a return pass from Willi Heinz.
“If Beauden Barrett had conjured such a try, we would be hailing it as an example of All Black brilliance,” said Sir Clive Woodward.
Johan Ackermann, Gloucester’s new head coach, is preaching the same ‘no fear’ message that brought him success with the Lions franchise in South Africa. Who knows where Gloucester will end up this season but they should certainly be good to watch.
Warriors step it up
Dave Rennie is another southern hemisphere coach starting out in British rugby and his Glasgow Warriors side produced plenty of razzle-dazzle in beating Munster 37-10 at Scotstoun.
It was a match where tensions spilled over and after a mass scuffle in the 18th minute, referee Nigel Owens summoned both teams together to deliver a firm warning about their conduct. Top refereeing that nipped the problem in the bud.
Ali Price is looking really sharp and if, as expected, he supplants the France-based Greig Laidlaw as his country’s No 9, then Scotland will be in need of a new permanent goalkicker.
Finn Russell has done a decent job since Laidlaw got injured during the Six Nations and his faultless display off the tee against Munster took him to a new Pro12/14 record – 16 out of 16 kicks at the start of a league campaign surpasses the 15 achieved by Dan Biggar in 2014.
Russell, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday, even had a bashed-up nose while he did it after he collided with Tyler Bleyendaal just before half-time.
Bath’s Matt Banahan is closing in on a little-known record – the most Premiership tries scored by a player on one ground.
Banahan’s try that sparked a 32-point blitz against Newcastle – before the Falcons remarkably hit back to win – was his 40th at the Rec in league action. Only two men can better that.
Leicester’s Neil Back scored 42 at Welford Road from 1997-2005 while James Simpson-Daniel heads the list with 44 at Kingsholm from 2001-13.
It’s only a matter of time before Banahan, a better player now than when he won his 16 England caps under Martin Johnson, puts Sinbad in the shade.
Little in life is simple and that includes rugby’s injury replacement laws. Currently, a substituted player may only return to the field if replacing either an injured front-row, a player with a blood injury, a player having a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) or a player injured as a result of foul play.
When Gloucester’s Tom Savage took a blow to the head after a crunching tackle by Worcester’s Christian Scotland-Williamson, the incident fitted none of those criteria. Savage was clearly not going to play any further part in the game, so Gloucester’s attempt to interpret Savage’s injury as an HIA didn’t wash. Ed Slater, keen to run back on as a replacement for the closing seven minutes, was sent back to the bench.
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The episode followed a similar misfortune for Bath’s Sam Underhill at Franklin’s Gardens. The law is designed to stop teams potentially bringing on players for ‘injured’ team-mates for tactical reasons, but the past two weeks have shown the flaw in the law.
Bath and Gloucester have both been reduced to 14 men after a player of theirs sustained a serious injury. It’s not right and surely this anomaly needs addressing.
A spate of injuries
2017 will be a year to forget for Billy Vunipola. The Saracens and England No 8 missed most of the Six Nations with a knee injury, and then the Lions tour with a shoulder problem. Now he won’t be seen again in anger until 2018 after suffering a knee injury against Sale that required surgery.
Rugby is a tough old sport and these things happen. Injury-enforced absences are almost inevitable for a pro player and, in the long term, can help prolong a career by sparing the body the usual weekly wear and tear.
However, the attrition rate this season has been something else. So much so, in fact, that Bath have postponed tonight’s A League match with Harlequins because they can’t raise a side. They have at least 16 players unavailable because of injury or concussion.
Such a casualty rate makes a mockery of Premiership Rugby’s proposal to extend the domestic season until the end of June, a plan they want introduced from the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
Reducing the off-season by a month looks like madness and this ironic tweet by Bath prop Max Lahiff reflects the view of many.
Senseless shoulder barges at opponents in the ruck have not yet been wiped out, despite the red-card sanctions that are regularly applied.
Edinburgh’s Michele Rizzo was sent off at Scarlets for such an offence, but far worse was Fineen Wycherley’s action at Glasgow that earned the Munster forward a red from Nigel Owens.
Wycherley clattered into the head of Tim Swinson and the only thing you can say in his defence is that, as a 19-year-old starting out in Pro14 rugby, he was trying too hard to make a physical impact. He will learn.