The Gallagher Premiership’s final offering before Christmas brought some much-needed festive cheer to fans of certain clubs.
Exeter Chiefs returned to the top of the table by beating Saracens, ending the reigning champions unbeaten run, which stretched all the way back to April. Elsewhere, in the league’s most compelling relegation battle for years, Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks picked up valuable home wins, whilst Northampton Saints were able to do the same on the road.
We have selected the pick of this week’s performers, but do you agree with our calls?
(* denotes RugbyPass Index score)
15. Joe Simmonds, Exeter Chiefs (76)
Simmonds is thriving in his new role at full-back, bringing the ability to link play in the wider channels and operate as a second playmaker when joining the back line, just as Willie le Roux does for Wasps. His kicking game was also vital on Saturday afternoon, as territory was pivotal against Saracens, with their defence still bringing its suffocating line-speed. The tactical flexibility that Simmonds brought to the mix for Exeter was key at Sandy Park.
14. Jonah Holmes, Leicester Tigers (70)
The Wales international grabbed two tries at Welford Road and was pivotal in Leicester securing a much-needed win. The first came as he tracked the ball in midfield and popped up outside George Ford on a borderline undefendable delayed line, whilst the second was due to his work rate in support of Tatafu Polota-Nau’s break, outsprinting all of Harlequins’ scramble defence and finishing off the try.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) December 23, 2018
13. Sam James, Sale Sharks (65)
A fine ball-handling performance from James in wet conditions at the AJ Bell. His catching, passing and offloading work was excellent on Saturday afternoon and he was also able to find some holes in the Bristol defence with a neat kicking game. James was strong, too, in defence, helping shut down Bristol and prevent them getting the ball into the hands of their dangerous back three in space.
12. Tom Hudson, Gloucester (64)
Hudson had some effective touches for Gloucester and ran a nice array of lines in a new role, away from the back three where he has more frequently featured for the Cherry and Whites in recent times. Despite a powerful carrier like Vereniki Goneva prowling around the midfield and targeting disconnects and weak inside shoulders, Hudson dealt well with everything Newcastle tried to throw down his channel.
11. Vereniki Goneva, Newcastle Falcons (66)
The Fijian wing took his try well at Kingston Park on Sunday and, perhaps even more impressively, helped keep in-form opposite number Ollie Thorley quiet. Goneva popped up in midfield on multiple occasions, bring powerful incision whenever he tracked the ball and spotted gaps in the defence. Furthermore, his ability to stay on his feet, free his arms and get offloads away allowed Newcastle to keep phases alive and stretch Gloucester.
10. George Ford, Leicester Tigers (72)
Fierce competition from both Dan Biggar and Rob du Preez, who enjoyed good games with Northampton and Sale respectively, but Ford just edges ahead with another silky-smooth performance for Leicester. He has been a shining light this season in a side that has struggled to reach its potential and he continued to orchestrate things on Saturday afternoon, pulling the strings of those around him, including a nice assist on a pullback pass for Holmes’ first score.
9. Cobus Reinach, Northampton Saints (66)
Reinach’s excellent form this season continued on Friday night, as he brought tempo, incision and opportunism to Northampton’s attack. His intercept try gave Saints a commanding position in the game, but it was his directing of his side offensively that allowed Saints to control both the possession and territory battles to the point where Worcester were able to offer up very little to challenge the visitors at Sixways.
"It could only be one man, @c_reinach!" ?
FULL length of the pitch from the ?? after the intercept near his own try line! ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) December 22, 2018
1. Callum Black, Worcester Warriors (73)
Ellis Genge showed up well for Leicester at home to Quins but there was no scrummaging performance this weekend at loosehead that matched up to the job Black was able to do on Paul Hill and Northampton. The prop had his way at the set-piece and though it wasn’t enough to secure four much-needed points for Worcester, as an individual performance, it is well worthy of mention here.
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, Exeter Chiefs (88)
Perfection in the lineout from Cowan-Dickie, who gratefully took his opportunity to impress against his England rival. His trademark physicality with the ball in hand and in defence was also on show, but it was his besting of Jamie George at the lineout that will likely have drawn the attention of Eddie Jones. If that part of his game continues to look as sharp as it did on Saturday, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the mix with George and Dylan Hartley moving forward.
3. Henry Thomas, Bath (62)
Along with Nathan Catt, Thomas put in an efficient and strong scrummaging performance against Wasps. He carried well, too, over the course of the game, invariably finding a metre or two whenever he got his hands on the ball, as well as linking play with some neat passes on or near the gain-line. The platform he provided at the set-piece and in the loose helped Freddie Burns have an effective showing himself.
4. Sam Skinner, Exeter Chiefs (88)
Just as Cowan-Dickie did, Skinner contributed significantly to both the physical and set-piece battles that Exeter won against Saracens on Saturday afternoon. He put down a marker against both George Kruis and Nick Isiekwe, and showed England what they will miss, with the lock having now committed his international future to Scotland.
5. Courtney Lawes, Northampton Saints (78)
An all-action performance from the lock, who, along with Teimana Harrison, was the main source of positive carrying in the Northampton pack. He was efficient at the lineout, too, as well as helping to disrupt Worcester’s unit, which struggled all game to successfully connect with its jumpers.
6. Alex Dombrandt, Harlequins (63)
Quins’ away struggles continue, but on a day when Leicester outmuscled them and won the physical battle at the contact area and on the gain-line, Dombrandt bucked the trend. The flanker maintained his impressive recent form and hurt Leicester as both a ball-carrier and a tackler, rarely allowing Tigers carriers any sort of front-foot ball. His late try was well-deserved for a strong 80-minute shift.
7. Tom Curry, Sale Sharks (64)
The England flanker looked good on his first start since injury ruled him out of the November internationals and was a constant thorn in Bristol’s side at the breakdown. Once he was in over the ball, he proved incredibly hard to move and though he didn’t come away with a glut of turnovers, he prospered slowing down and disrupting the quick ball that Bristol usually thrive on offensively.
8. Matt Kvesic, Exeter Chiefs (88)
Exeter’s game against Saracens was far from a classic, but the Chiefs made it into a backyard brawl that suited them and Kvesic was a big part of that. He excelled at the contact area, as he so often does, but also brought a physicality in the tackle that Saracens, unusually for them, just couldn’t match. He punched holes around the fringes and softened up the Saracens fringe defence, rather than going wide too quickly and playing into the hands of their line-speed and blitz in the midfield.
Watch: London Irish are set to leave their long-term Reading home and move to Brentford’s new stadium in west London.
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