Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: the PRO14 and Premiership openings, new rugby laws and predictions
Last Updated: 04/09/17 1:58pm
Stuart Barnes assesses the opening weekends of the PRO14 and Aviva Premiership, the new rugby laws and makes some predictions for the season ahead in his talking points...
There was some superb rugby, some entertaining matches - some of it admittedly scruffy - with a couple of shocks thrown into the bargain. Not a bad way for the British and Irish domestic game to kick start their season, one week behind their French counterparts.
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In the first weekend of Top 14 rugby, the French champions, Clermont Auvergne, were beaten. That was also to be the case in the Aviva Premiership on Saturday but most definitely not the PRO14, but the Scarlets are PRO12 champions. Let's look at the events in West Wales first.
1. Our cameras were privileged to catch 40 fantastic minutes of concentrated attack from the defending champions on Saturday. Overconfident and over playing their hand, the home side tried to force the issue against newcomers the Southern Kings in an entertaining but far from perfect first half.
Less lateral in the second period, they sucked the South African opposition into more tackles and found space away from the contact. James Davies was outstanding but even he was shaded by Johnny McNicholl for man of the match. The former Crusader carried over 200 metres, scored two tries and assisted with another. But forget the statistics. So often they are deceptive.
Full-backs and wings amass the metres with easy counters from loose kicks. On Saturday the New Zealander beat defender after defender. They were well-earned metres, while his first try probably registered no more than two metres maximum but was a brilliant finish. It was a second half to make Scarlets fans excited about the season ahead.
2. The English season started with Gloucester beating reigning champions Exeter. I'll be honest with you, when I was writing the introduction to this column I initially stated that both the PRO14 and Aviva Premiership campaigns began with wins for the champions. Old habits die hard and after watching Saracens' Twickenham opener on Sunday morning, I completely forgot that Mark McCall's side were not the defending champions.
They were that good in the first half. Countless tries forged by the combination of organisational excellence and individual brilliance. Schalk Brits was only on the field for 48 minutes but what a 48 minutes they were. He's 36 years of age but the speed, the step, the off load and the smile are better than ever. How is the British and Irish Lions hooker ever going to get the first choice Saracens jersey?
3. Northampton are one of the more consistent teams in England; they are getting a little worse season after season. One hammering doesn't make an endless winter but don't be surprised if they struggle to make the top half this season.
Indeed it would not surprise me to see them finish below London Irish. I was a fan of Nick Kennedy as a player and I have long held a hunch he'll do even better as a coach/manager. His team were sharp against Harlequins. Troublesome at the line out, which is no shock given Kennedy's career, but perhaps none of us expected them to find a four-try bonus point win.
They have high calibre overseas players to bolster the squad and in Alex Lewington possess a young winger who'll make a name for himself this campaign. I really rated the game management of Brendan McKibben in the final quarter. It was an afternoon of interest and excellence for the Twickenham crowd.
4. What about the law changes? In the 69th minute of the London Irish game, Danny Care raised his arms in appeal as McKibbin fed the scrum crooked, starting from the shoulder of his second row.
Matt Carley missed a few illegal put-ins with Gloucester far from straight on Friday as well. Yet take the referees out of the equation and it was a good first weekend. Quicker scrums and hookers raising their legs to strike. It looks a decent change to the law.
5. The breakdown law (I assume you read all about it on the Sky rugby pages last week) was pretty well policed and pretty well played. James Davies never once played the ball from the 'opposing' gate.
The players got themselves back on the 'right' side of the tackle and without hacking through there was also plenty of aggressive rucking. Gloucester decided to leave men out while Saracens and Irish were willing to attack the breakdown in a positive manner. Gloucester will need to adapt.
6. The two South African entrants to the PRO14 both struggled at the breakdown over the weekend. The lesser Super Rugby teams simply do not put the numbers into the tackle area. The Kings in particular suffered at the hands and breakdown brain of James Davies. Both of them will have to adapt quickly to the Northern Hemisphere norms.
Both, on a happier note, showed plenty in attack. Strong carrying backrows and lethally quick back-three players guarantee more difficult times for the regular 12 when they travel to South Africa. Two heavy defeats, yes, but give them time before judgement is made....both teams have the raw talent to turn appalling opening results around.
7. There is more concern with the mandatory 10-minute spell on the sidelines after tests for concussion. That's 12.5 per cent of a game, the same as a yellow card. Teams are potentially punished as key players remain off the field when they are perfectly fit to resume.
Had Gareth Steenson been allowed back into action at Gloucester, I reckon he would have kicked the 78th-minute penalty to give Exeter the lead. Slade missed and the whole psychological shape of the game swung Gloucester's way. It was a great result for Gloucester if not a great pair of performances, especially from an Exeter side whose retention was rusty - to say the least.
8. With Johan Ackermann running events on the field at Gloucester, it will be interesting to see whether he will change the way he plays it (with minimum numbers at the breakdown), and how quickly his team find the extra attacking width associated with Super Rugby. I suspect it was still a bit too pick-and-drive one-out for the former Lions boss.
9. Some predictions? Saracens to regain the Premiership title. Europe? I'll take a gamble and go away from the Anglo-French for a change. Scarlets need luck with injuries, their squad is not anything like that of Saracens or Clermont, but what the hell, the Scarlets it is.
Relegation? Worcester. Evaluation of the two conference system at the end of the season? One too many teams in the play-offs, making the regular season a little bit less competitive than it could be. It'll be fun finding out if half the rugby is half as good as the Scarlets were last Saturday
10. Across the channel, the headline result on Saturday was Agen's victory against the Parisian power of Racing 92. I trained there once, pre-season, a few years back. It was an all-in scrap and then a lot of local red. Madness.
I've had a soft spot for Philippe Sella's old team ever since. Allez Agen. PS. The last time I was there it boasted the world's only Prune museum....how about that?