Premiership teams find their mojo

Tue, 14 Feb 2017 09:48
Large wasps celebrate v exeter 2017 800

OPINION: Ronan Calvert gives rugby365's readers his view on the latest action in the Northern Hemisphere's three top leagues - Premiership, Pro12 and the Top 14.

He gives his best performers after a weekend where a number of stars were on international duty.

Premiership: Round 14 

League Leaders: Wasps

This week's results: Bath 32-30 Northampton, Bristol 8-42 Harlequins, Sale 26-24 Newcastle, Leicester 34-9 Gloucester, Worcester 24-18 Saracens, Exeter 35-35 Wasps

Team of the round: Worcester 

Player of the round: Ryan Mills (Worcester) 

Game of the round: Bath v Northampton 

Comment: It was a high scoring round of action in the Premiership this week as most teams managed to find their try-scoring mojo without their Six Nations stars. 

However, where supporters around the grounds weren't enjoying end-to-end affairs this week, there were certainly a few last-gasp nail biters to get their teeth into instead. In fact, for me the most interesting result of the round came in a tighter affair between Worcester and Saracens at Sixways. The home side of course pulled a shock 24-18 victory out of the bag in that one, with each and every of their points coming courtesy of the boot of flyhalf Ryan Mills - 24 valuable points that sent their loyal supporters into cloud nine, and have sent the team five points clear of relegation. Mills was one of many standout Worcester performers on Saturday afternoon, including leadership figures Francois Hougaard and captain Donncha O'Callaghan, who each inspired a result that truly highlights the competitiveness of the English league. 

For a classic underdog story you really can't look past Worcester v Saracens as the result of the week, but Northampton's visit to Bath had just about everything you want from a good game of rugby. The two sides exchanged a whopping seven tries throughout a match that was jam-packed with late drama. On the 70th minute of play Bath scrumhalf Chris Cook went in for a try to nudge his side ahead, but only for the Saints to hit back five minutes later through Jamie Gibson - which was thought to surely have been enough to secure the visitor's a blockbusting victory. But it was not to be. In overtime, Bath were awarded a penalty that granted Welsh international flyhalf Rhys Priestland a chance to step up the plate. Three points was enough to secure the win and Priestland made no mistake to fire over to make it 32-30 in the most dramatic of encounters at The Rec.  

Pro12: Round 14

League Leaders: Munster

This week's results: Treviso 14-40 Leinster, Cardiff 13-19 Connacht, Zebre 10-40 Ospreys, Munster 45-17 Dragons, Glasgow 14-26 Scarlets, Ulster 24-18 Edinburgh 

Team of the round: Munster

Player of the round: Tyler Bleyendaal (Munster)

Game of the round: Cardiff v Connacht

Comment: While the Pro12 can boast of having more international representatives than their rivalling European leagues, the flipside of that is usually a telling reduction in quality come this time of the year. The Celts must answer questions asked of their squad depth, adding a positive sense of unpredictability, but unpredictable the Italians are not, as they continue to be embarrassed during this Six Nations window. At least that is the norm, and based on this week's results, 2017 will be no different. 

Indeed, the Italians Zebre and Treviso were recipients of respective thumpings from Leinster and Ospreys while whoever had more internationals at their disposal reigned supreme elsewhere. 

The one positive note to take away from the weekend though is for Irish rugby fans, as all four provinces came away with league victories this weekend to add to wins for the national team and the Under-20 national team in the Six Nations. Munster and Leinster simply had too much for the lowly Dragons and Treviso while Ulster and particularly Connacht required some late heroics. 

It's certainly not the most intriguing stage of the Pro12 season but it is a crucial stage for building up the points tally, and it's been the Irish sides that have shown the best early signs of doing so.  

Top 14: Round 17

League Leaders: La Rochelle 

This week's results: Pau 38-15 Lyon, Racing 50-29 Bayonne

Team of the round: Racing 92

Player of the round: Teddy Thomas (Racing)

Game of the round: Racing v Bayonne

Comment: There were just the two games in the Top 14 this week and they brought two wins, for two sides that are looking for a top six finish. 

Pau hosted Lyon at Stade du Hameau as they kept their march for Champions Cup rugby well on track with a convincing 38-15 triumph. Although new to the Top 14, Pau have certainly made their mark by surging up the table and attracting world class talents such as Conrad Smith, Colin Slade, Steffon Armitage, Ben Mowen, Tom Taylor and James Coughlan among others, hasn't hurt them either. 

On the topic of Pau and others, one might argue that the Top14 is a contest of finances first and a contest of rugby thereafter, but Racing suggest otherwise as the Parisians really haven't had it all their own way this season. Lying at eighth in the table despite their mega-bucks and with not much time left to turn their season around, Champions Cup rugby may well evade them in 2018. Without success, does Racing become a less attractive destination? Their coach Ronan O'Gara has already let his feelings known about the age profile of their squad but there will surely be no improvement now until their back competing at the very top. Likewise to the MLS in football, less successful Top 14 clubs are becoming payoffs for retiring players. They can attract Dan Carters and Joe Rockockos but considering Racing's current situation would they be able to convince a 27-year-old Johnny Sexton to leave what he knows and head to Paris for a wage increase? They did so in 2013, but now outside of Champions Cup qualification, their pull power is on the wane. 

Taking a leaf out of league leaders La Rochelle's book, might be an idea.

By Ronan Calvert of MunsterHaka.com
@rugby365com