Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Premiership relegation, PRO14, Top 14 and Europe
Last Updated: 03/12/18 6:46pm
Stuart Barnes looks back at the latest round of club action, casting his eye over the relegation battle in the Premiership and ahead to Europe...
1. I know it's playing Devil's Advocate, but right now it wouldn't be untrue to say the relegation battle in the Premiership ranges from sixth to 12th position.
Seven teams are scrapping away, looking for a run of wins to take them out of this condensed battle at the bottom. My old clubs, Bath and Bristol are sixth and seventh respectively but Newcastle, bottom of the table yet significant winners at Northampton, are a mere four and three points away from them.
There has never been a table like it. Imagine if there wasn't relegation. All the fun taken out of the spectacle for the neutral.
2. On Saturday I was at Ashton Gate, witness to one of Bristol's best days in modern rugby times. Pat Lam's team were on course for a convincing win before Kyle Eastmond was sent off by Wayne Barnes in the 25th minute. There was a time we might have called the decision 'controversial' but after some of the officiating in recent weeks it seemed pretty straightforward.
Don't get yourself into a position where a referee can see red. That should be the motto. Whether you think it harsh or not, under current rulings it was the right call. As for Leicester, the card was a signal for complete collapse. A sixth bonus-point loss.
They are the worst defence in the Premiership. Such weaknesses can be punished with relegation. Sounds odd, but on current form Leicester, with half the England backline are there with Worcester, Bristol, Sale and Newcastle as genuine contenders.
3. Newcastle may be bottom but the late winner from Mark Wilson at Franklin's Gardens was a major move in the right direction, pulling them within touching distance of the top six! In contrast, Northampton tumbled into the relegation zone. I wonder, right now, how pleased the Saints playing side are to have played their 'home' game against the Tigers at Twickenham?
This is the only away game Leicester has won this season...anyway, I digress. Newcastle: they are starting to win and this weekend sees the pressure off as they travel to Edinburgh looking for three straight wins in Europe. Dean Richards must be aware they cannot win the tournament but a trip beyond the pool stage would be great for morale.
4. Away from the bottom seven (all of whom have three wins from six to their names), Harlequins produced my idea of performance of the weekend against an admittedly weakened Exeter team - although Exeter are rightly proud of their strength in depth.
This, Quins' fourth win of the season, saw them shoot into the promised land of third to fifth where there is a little gap between the toilers, struggling from sixth downwards. It was noticeable for an outstanding ball-carrying performance from Alex Dombrandt.
Those of you who read my Monday newspaper column will be aware I think there's a case for Eddie Jones having a serious look at the 21-year-old blindside flanker.
5. Exeter may have lost but their propensity for hoarding bonus points keeps them within two points of league leaders, Saracens.
Nine out of nine for the English champions, Mark McCall's men put Wasps away with fairly clinical precision. On paper there are two teams clear of the rest; in reality, Saracens seem to be out on their own.
6. Their nearest rivals, Exeter, have something of an acid test coming up. Rob Baxter's men were expected to mount a European challenge this campaign. Having drawn at home and lost away, nothing but victory will suffice this Saturday.
The opposition are Gloucester, English opposition hold no fear for the Chiefs. They should win. If they don't there will be a few question marks about a team who have the winning knack but are not playing that well...ring any bells, England fans through 2017 going into the fall of 2018?
7. It is all a little too predictable at the conference summits in the PRO14. The depth of the Leinster squad is magnificent. The table tells a tale. As for Glasgow, Dave Rennie has his side winning again but based on the game against Saracens, they appear far more likely to achieve something when the stakes are at their highest.
Having bounced back from that home loss with a convincing away win in Cardiff, they remain a team in contention for one of the three best runner-up spots in Europe. If they can win away to Lyon, a newcomer struggling to get to grips with Europe, I fancy Glasgow to make the quarter-finals. I think they will.
8. Leinster themselves need an away win after a shock defeat in Toulouse. The Frenchmen have squeezed an away win in Bath and if the European champions want to remain in a position to control the pool, they have to follow in those Toulouse footsteps.
Bath, I hope, will rise to the occasion, but it'll take something unforeseen to see them beat one of the two clear tournament favourites. Still, that is the nature of this competition. Drawing at home to Sale one week and beating Leinster the next.
I wouldn't be putting any money on it but you never know. The other side of the deal is that Bath get battered and their fans turn on their club as Leicester fans (understandably) seem to have done this weekend after the Bristol fiasco.
9. Let's refocus on Toulouse. I called a few of their early Top 14 games and was deeply impressed with their spirit and - most of all - the regeneration of their back play.
In particular, the back-three, the very soul of Toulouse rugby...yes, I might be an old Romantic but there's something magic about Toulouse weaving spells between the touchline and five-metre line as if Clement Poitreneaud, Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc are back in harmony.
They thrashed Stade Francais to go second in the table. Allez Toulouse.
10. Top of the table in France and a serious player in the Champions Cup (had they qualified last season), are Clermont Auvergne. Out of the European big time, they'll be unstoppable en route to the playoffs.
Such a shame we are not seeing them performing at the high table in Europe. I am not prepared to predict who will be relegated from the Premiership but I'll tell you this, Clermont are certs for the Champions Cup, 2019/20.
But that's for the future, enjoy the immediate weekend ahead. Not to mention the days leading up to the weekend...