Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, plays boxing promoter and picks the Premiership season’s biggest match-up to come and has a cunning plan to solve Lions fatigue.
Two weeks of the Premiership gone and already people are searching around for a club to beat Saracens, winners for the last two years and Kings of Europe for good measure. Talk about calling a race in the first furlong, but this time the wannabe Peter O’Sullevans might just be right and scouring the fixture list makes you wonder who is going to give them a game, a proper one, for 80 minutes, and come out on the right side of it.
There must be someone out there though and it won’t need Eddie Hearn to promote the scrap like he did the Kell Brook fight at the weekend – tickets will walk out of the box office by themselves. And there just might be a team out there who could at least take Saracens the distance – but it is going to take some doing. And rugby needs it after being drowned by the Jose v Pep Manchester derby nonsense in the papers all week.
On the first weekend of the domestic season the Saracens’ director of rugby, Mark McCall, looked like a bloke who had just been stood up by Miss World after his team had beaten Worcester 35-3 with a bonus point chucked in. Most DoRs would have been dancing on the ceiling but McCall was in no mood to do a Lionel Richie – he probably wouldn’t do one if Saracens won the World Cup, the Ryder Cup and the Ashes on the same weekend.
On Sunday, at Sandy Park, he was smiling, and no wonder. His side had just battered Exeter 34-13, with five tries, and they had done it with some of their big guns missing.
This is the same Exeter who were Saracens’ nearest challengers last season and the same team who are everyone’s second favourite club for the way they are run from the top to the bottom.
But once Alex Lozowski and Sean Maitland had scored five-pointers in the first 20 minutes, with Sarries playing into a howling wind, it was a case of how many.
The last Saracens’ score summed up their attitude. Time was up, they were leading 27-13 and Exeter were having a crack at scoring a try to at least get a losing bonus point on the scoreboard. You could just go through the motions but that is not this mob’s style or McCall’s style – he was still shouting himself hoarse a couple of feet away from the gentlemen and ladies of the press pack.
The old Wolf Pack defence got into gear, forcing the Chiefs onto the back foot, the hosts spilled the ball and Ben Spencer pounced to put the icing on the cake as the coaching staff were walking down the stairs from their box to head to the dressing room. They were like that all afternoon – relentless.
And the frightening thing is that they were not fully loaded. They had Duncan Taylor, Chris Wyles, Owen Farrell, George Kruis, Will Fraser and Neil de Kock missing from the 23 that beat Exeter 28-20 in the Premiership final in May. Charlie Hodgson was on the bench that day and he has retired upstairs to help out with recruitment – as if they need any more players.
Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Alex Goode and Jamie George all put in good shifts in front of the watching Eddie Jones but McCall, quite rightly, picked out some of the blokes who don’t get smoke blown up their backsides every week.
“It was a massive step up in terms of our intensity,” he said. “There was a brilliant focus before the game – you feel it sometimes. It was a big contrast between last week and this week – they knew it was a big game and it was serious.
“The people who played really well were our unheralded players – Jackson Wray was brilliant, Richard Wigglesworth was outstanding and Brad Barritt captained really well. People are ready to step up and come in and control things.” And that is very bad news for the rest of the Premiership.
Saracens will lose at some point this season – no-one not wearing a black kit and a silver fern has unblemished campaigns and even New Zealand need a helping hand from the authorities now and again. But who is going to do it?
From this distance, and with a quick look at the fixtures, Saracens fans, Wasps fans and neutrals had better put a red circle around the date of 9 October when the current champions host Dai Young’s side at Allianz Park.
Sunday’s result in Exeter might just have been the most significant one that day but the most significant on the Saturday was Wasps’ win over Leicester at Welford Road. To put that 34-24 victory in context, Wasps had not won in the Tigers’ lair since 2008 and had only prevailed there twice in their previous 19 visits. That is bogey ground territory.
But they raced into a 27-8 lead just after half-time, thanks to tries from Guy Thompson and Sam Jones, had a brief attack of the jitters when they let Leicester back into it and had about five chances to really nail the game before they really put lid down.
And guess what? They did it without a load of big guns and now they have beaten two out of the top four finishers in last year’s league in their first couple of outings.
You could argue that out of Saturday’s starting line-up only Christian Wade, Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury would have been trotting out first-up in a big game this time last year. Wasps have lost a few, notably the brilliant Charles Piutau, and they had James Haskell, Kyle Eastmond, Kurtley Beale and Dan Robson on the sick list. Willie le Roux is on his way too but won’t arrive till after Christmas but they are still winning.
Wasps’ next three fixtures are Bristol at home, Northampton away and Harlequins at home – all three of them eminently winnable even without their big guns.
Saracens’ next three fixtures are Northampton at home, Harlequins away and Bristol away – all three eminently winnable even without their big guns.
Wasps have nine points out of 10 so far, as do Bath, but they beat a shocking Newcastle side on Saturday, and Saracens have a perfect 10 out of 10 and to beat Saracens at the moment you have to be 10 out of 10
As Exeter boss Rob Baxter said after the game on Sunday: “There was some good stuff there but you can’t just be good against Saracens – you have to be very good.”
And as Michael Buffer said in the ring ahead of Brook’s brave effort against Gennady Golovkin in the middleweight bout at the weekend: ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’. Saracens v Wasps won’t be a hard sell.
Up in Edinburgh last Wednesday the British & Irish Lions revealed the worst kept secret in rugby history – that Warren Gatland would coach the side to play the All Blacks next summer.
They also admitted the not-so-secret fact that the-once great touring side is now just a huge cash cow and a jobs-for-the-boys enterprise who have no real interest in doing something to actually win the series.
Premiership Rugby, Pro12 and the unions have all conspired to give Gatland a virtually impossible task by refusing to move their seasons an inch ahead of rugby’s greatest challenge.
The tourists will fly out to New Zealand two days after many of them will have played in their respective club finals – their first game is on the next Saturday. Utter madness.
That hit out against a Provincial Union XV in Whangarei, in the north of Kiwi-land, should be a walk in the park and the rest of it is nonsense. All the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises are on the menu and most of them will be fully tooled up and the New Zealand Maori are on the schedule too – oh and then there is a Test series against possibly the greatest side the game has seen.
And all this with British players who have been knocking six bells out of each other since September, through domestic competitions, European bashes and the Six Nations. They will be out on their feet and no-one can find anywhere in the calendar to give them a week or two off before heading down under to try and emulate the heroes of 1971 – the last Lions to beat the All Blacks.
There is an easy solution though. In Lions’ years just don’t have end of season play-offs in the Premiership or the Pro12. That would give the players a couple of weeks’ grace to get over 10 months of rugby. Simples.
It would also mean the team who played the best rugby over 22 weeks of the leagues, and came top of the table, would get the trophy instead of having situation where a side can finish fourth, win two games and lift the pot despite the blood and guts shed over the rest of the season. It is so logical it will never catch on.