Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Premiership bonus points, relegation-battle nous and Exeter's evolution
Last Updated: 08/04/19 3:30pm
Premiership bonus points and relegation-battle nous are two pertinent areas discussed by Stuart Barnes in his latest set of talking points...
1. It was not a bad weekend for Bristol. They may have lost to their great rivals, Bath, at Twickenham but in the broader scheme of things - like survival - it was a positive result.
Newcastle and Worcester did not manage a bonus-point and were there negative points for being hammered, Leicester would have dropped even nearer the bottom. Those of a positive disposition will argue that Bristol's freewheeling attacking game, which has brought them plenty of bonus points, is exactly how the bonus-point system should work, but I am just a little bit sceptical.
The bottom four teams in the Premiership have all won six games, yet Bristol are a whopping eight points clear of Newcastle. Dean Richards' men could end up with more wins than Pat Lam's team and be the side to go down. While everyone harks on about entertainment, rugby's essence remains the ability to win, or lose, a game. We are all well aware of the argument in favour of bonus points but more rarely do we consider the other side to the coin. So let's just put it out there, what do you think?
2. Staying on the theme of relegation, I cannot help but notice Newcastle are home to Leicester on Friday night. Richards, the great man of Leicester, who was dumped all those years ago, has a chance to pay his old employers back. His mission is to keep his club up but if it was at the cost of Leicester I would not be altogether surprised if the wryest of grins escaped that inscrutable face.
The Falcons are five points behind the Tigers - or should that be Cubs? - with three matches left after the forthcoming weekend, it may be Newcastle need to stop Leicester coming away with anything. A bonus point for Newcastle would be just that, a four-point gain on Leicester the primary objective.
3. Experience is an asset. Leicester are the rookies in the race to avoid the drop. Here is a club whose DNA is based around making a play-off as the minimum, winning the Premiership was once the standard. Now they are involved in a dogfight where, right now, only George Ford seems to be carrying any bite.
Worcester, in 11th position have been here before, they know the score. So too Bristol and Newcastle. For the Tigers, a year travelling to Penzance and Jersey seems inconceivable, a nightmare of existential proportions.
Any of four could drop, Leicester are no longer too good to go. In the last six seasons the team who has conceded the most points has been relegated. Before Saturday that team was Bristol, Exeter made sure that did not remain the case.
4. On the subject of Exeter, what a delight to see them offloading the ball, playing with a pace and ambition, far in excess of their pick and drive operations.
The laws are changing at the breakdown and Exeter had to move their game on if they were not to risk getting caught out. Rob Baxter, as sharp a DOR as there is, has his lads playing at extra tempo already. Impressive stuff.
5. It is hard to see beyond an Exeter versus Saracens final, even given Gloucester's good run of form. Home advantage looks to have been all but secured for both clubs and I do not see any side winning at Saracens, while Gloucester are the one club capable of shocking Exeter just off the M5.
But, the Cherry and Whites' winning-run is starting to make it look as if their destiny will take them to north London.
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6. Toulouse and Clermont are well ahead of the pack in France but there is no sense of inevitability come the knockout stages here.
Clermont are one of Europe's most talented teams, both physically and technically. They are also one of the mentally weakest still and, if tactical appreciation is to be judged on their draw with Racing on Sunday, one of the most tactically inept.
I do not think they will win the title...there we are, it is out. Racing remain a threat, Castres should not bother the big guns but they do while Toulouse look the current best bet.
7. No great shock, Toulouse's loss at Toulon in Marseilles. Two thirds of the team were rested, the entire team were probably still recovering from the epic effort required to beat Racing away in Europe with 14 men for much of the match.
They are in a good position. They face Clermont at home on Sunday and then Leinster, one week later, in the European Cup semi-final. What team will they select for Clermont? Will they be after a psychological hammer blow in France or a perfect preparation for their clash with Leinster? It's a key question, a test of Ugo Mola's credentials as Toulouse boss. Better these sort of questions than the type Georden Murphy has to answer...
8. Toulon won because they wanted it. That and the fact Toulouse simply did not need it. It showed in the side selected and the manner of the game. Toulon were dervishes, scrapping hard at the breakdown in a way we have seen all too rarely this campaign.
The celebrations when they scored were wild. They were wound up for Toulouse, a reminder rugby is a game of emotion as well as intellect, technique and strength.
9. In the PRO14 a big hand for the two Scottish teams. Glasgow bounced back from their heavy defeat against Saracens to dispatch an equally disappointed Ulster team and remain ahead of Munster, top of Conference A.
Edinburgh, the team Munster just beat in the quarter-finals, won in West Wales against the Scarlets to keep their play-off hopes alive. Note too, Benetton drew against a Leinster team miles clear of the rest and in doing so kept alive the possibility of a first Italian side in the play-offs.
10. Finally a word on Ben Youngs. The Leicester scrum-half will not play a part in Leicester's fight against relegation. He will bid to prepare himself for the World Cup by having a shoulder operation.
The scrum-half does not need game time, he needs to be sharper around the base, more accurate with his pass and think the game from his, and not his manager's, perspective. Things to ponder as he recovers from that operation.