I was at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday night to witness the worst game of rugby that I can remember watching for a long time. The conditions didn’t help but it isn’t the first time players have played in rain, especially those of Sale and Newcastle, and skill levels were exceptionally low.
There was no lack of effort or endeavor but nothing came off. Even the Falcons coaching staff said it was horrendous, but they’ll take the win and the Sharks will be kicking themselves as they’ve really ratcheted up the pressure with London Irish coming to town this weekend.
The Exiles took an absolute pasting down in Exeter, with Nick Kennedy admitting they were beaten all over the field by a better team, but they will still have some confidence from their opening win over Harlequins and will fancy this one.
Salford is not an intimidating place to visit. The official attendance on Friday was 4,510 but it didn’t feel like there was even half that number there. Sale lost five of their 11 home league games last season and Irish will be targeting this one. Another win would really heap pressure on Sale and Worcester, despite the very early stage of the season.
It’s a huge week for Sale and, given what Steve Diamond had to say after the game, I’m pretty sure it’s been an uncomfortable one for their players up at Carrington.
It was an uncomfortable week for Saints last week but their internationals really did stand up against Leicester. Courtney Lawes was man of the match, Dylan Hartley had a big game and George North put in a good performance but the question mark for fans will be whether they can produce that level on a consistent basis.
I heard that Jim Mallinder called the players soft in meetings in the build-up to the East Midlands derby, which always gets the backs up, and I think that had a real impact and led to an increase in physicality but you can’t do that every week.
Bath are coming to Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night and they have won two out of two so far and did the double over Saints last season, so it’s another big test for them.
I’m sure Northampton would have liked a slightly easier start to the season, but they are aiming to be a top four team and you can’t have the big highs and lows of the past couple of weeks if you want to achieve that. You have got to be more consistent.
The performance at the weekend could paper over some cracks when, ultimately, they need to plaster over those cracks properly. One win doesn’t alleviate all the pressure or answer all the questions but it will give them confidence and now they have to do it week in, week out.
Leicester have lost their opening two games of the season for just the second time in the Premiership era but they should have beaten Bath and they were just outmuscled by a Saints side that needed a backlash against their East Midlands rivals more than ever, so I expect them to win reasonably comfortably at Welford Road this weekend against a Gloucester side that doesn’t travel too well.
It’s a must win game for the Tigers but their opponents have only won twice at Welford Road in the Premiership and the last of those was a decade ago in 2007 when I was playing, so I expect them to win and some serious questions will be asked if they don’t.
Bath have been exceptional so far. Some would have looked at their opening fixtures and been filled with dread but they’ve won at Welford Road for the first time in 14 years and beaten a Saracens side that they’d lost to in 13 of their last 15 meetings, so they’re in a really good place ahead of their trip to Northampton.
Saracens came within an intercepted pass of winning the game, though, and felt confident enough to turn down three points that would have got them a draw so there’ll be no panic in their camp.
Some coaches at other clubs react to losing by stopping players drinking and having fun and say there’s no smiling until you win again. Saracens are the opposite and take it all in their stride, so there’s no issues with players going to a karaoke bar after the game and they will be prepared and ready to bounce back this week.
What a stage to do it on as well…I think it’s brilliant that Premiership Rugby are trying to crack the US market and their partnership with NBC to televise games over there will be critical to achieving that but taking games over there is massive and this should be another good one with Saracens facing Newcastle.
It’ll be a great experience for the players. I was lucky enough to play in South Africa and tour to Australia and New Zealand in Super Rugby and that life experience of going away to a different country for a period really does bond a squad together.
Saracens, in addition to their many trips to far-flung places in the middle of the season and in pre-season, have experienced all this before after they took on London Irish in New Jersey in March 2016 so they are likely to handle the whole situation better and will be big favourites.
Saracens have won their last 17 games against Newcastle in all competitions but the Falcons have won their opening couple of games and are sitting pretty in second place in the table, so they can go into this one with the pressure off and see what they can do.
They might be massive underdogs but it’s clear we should expect the unexpected in what is shaping up to be the most competitive campaign we have ever seen in the Premiership.