Rugby union: talking points from the Premiership and Pro12


1) Gopperth prevails at No12 in battle of England fly-halves

The early stages of the Premiership season are important ones for a number of eligible English fly-halves. Danny Cipriani and Henry Slade both have international squad ambitions and could do with nudging Eddie Jones this month ahead of the announcement of England’s senior squad on 30 September. Both did some good things – Slade’s left boot is as sweet as anybody’s in the game – without entirely dominating proceedings; the fly-half who had the biggest impact on the day was Jimmy Gopperth, playing at 12 for Wasps. It will be interesting to see how both go this weekend against Leicester and Saracens respectively, although Wasps’ director of rugby Dai Young is keen to emphasise it is a long season and is principally concerned with keeping both Cipriani and Gopperth in one piece. “You don’t want to get to Christmas with no 10s. I certainly can’t play there, that’s for sure”. Robert Kitson

Match report: Wasps 25-20 Exeter

2) Mallinder may not be a No10 but nor should he be overlooked

After a breakthrough season that culminated in England’s Junior World Cup triumph, Harry Mallinder has hit his first speed bump – publicly at least. Like his team, he started brightly against Bath, but thereafter his frustrations mirrored Northampton’s as his opposite number, George Ford, took the game away. Knowing types will say “ah, but he’s not a 10”, and that was Eddie Jones’s assessment recently. Perhaps Mallinder is doomed to become the latest Saint to suffer from the England coach’s unerring judgement. Jones was lauded for his tactical acumen when he hauled off Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison before half-time in the first and third summer Tests respectively in Australia.

On his return, Jones’s first observation on Mallinder was: “He’s definitely not a 10.” It seemed a little harsh on a guy who had only just turned 20. If it weren’t for the fact that Dylan Hartley is his captain, a sensitive Saints fan might think Jones had it in for their boys. No doubt Mallinder will gravitate to 12 – at 6ft 5in and 17st he fits the bill physically – but for now he should not be shielded from playing 10 as a richly talented player who tries to make things happen. In that respect, he stood out in Northampton colours at the end of last season and no doubt will do so again this. More importantly, with Henry Slade and Ollie Devoto, England are suddenly awash with the rangy Will Greenwood-type playmakers that Stuart Lancaster could never find. Michael Aylwin

Match report: Northampton 14-18 Bath

Harry Mallinder’s future may well be at No12. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

3) Newcastle snatch hope from jaws of defeat

It is far too early in the season to talk about moments that will define campaigns, but Newcastle Falcons supporters must have experienced a palpable sense of deja vu in the closing stages against Sale. Last season they lost five matches by a single score and had Dan Mugford’s late penalty gone over, another gut-wrenching defeat would have done nothing to alleviate concerns that another battle for survival was on the cards. As it was, Mugford missed and suddenly there is optimism at Kingston Park. Dean Richards pointedly remarked that Newcastle “would have lost that game last season” and victory against a side who tend to show the kind of organisation and consistency – particularly at home – to which the Falcons should aspire suggests the optimism is justified. Kingston Park on a Friday night, especially in February, used to be a trip few teams relished but with the fit again Sinoti Sinoti and Niki Goneva – excellent on his debut against Sale – dazzling on the artificial pitch, it is for perhaps different reasons that no one will fancy the journey north this season. Gerard Meagher

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Byron McGuigan

Sale Sharks’ Byron McGuigan touches down but his side could not push for victory in the dying minutes. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters

4) Worcester must rely on more than just attrition

Alex Lozowski scored 20 points on his debut for Saracens and while he was signed from Wasps as an understudy to Owen Farrell, the latter’s absence for three months of the season on duty with England makes him a key member of the squad. Mark McCall opted for Lozowski rather than more experienced 10s who were available to replace Charlie Hodgson, and if it will take him time to get used to the very different styles of Wasps and Sarries, he got into the game in the second half, scoring a try and helping establish greater continuity.

Fly-half has been a problem position for Worcester in most of their years in the Premiership, one they have not resolved in the close season. They were mute as an attacking force against the champions, confined to a few breakouts and making no inroads against a blanket defence. New recruit Ben Te’o provided their best moment, getting near to the line after picking up Billy Vunipola’s dropped catch, but they missed Francois Hougaard at scrum-half and Chris Pennell at full-back. They showed grit before fatigue set in, but the Premiership is now about more than attrition. Worcester’s fate will be determined by how they play with the ball in hand. Paul Rees

Match report: Saracens 35-3 Worcester

Alex Lozowski

Alex Lozowski scored 20 points for Saracens on debut. Photograph: Kieran Galvin/Rex/Shutterstock

5) Local boy Harrison leads Leicester’s great escape

To lose at home after being 31-7 up early in the second half takes some doing. Gloucester’s downfall was a combination of several factors: removing their entire front row en masse after 48 minutes, Leicester’s superior bench and losing a crucial late lineout after kicking to the corner rather than going for goal. The Tigers, though, deserve credit for their great escape, not least the ponytailed Sam Harrison. It’s not often you see a specialist scrum-half shifted to fly-half win a match with two tries from close-range mauls plus a brace of nerveless conversions. “He could do with a haircut but he was awesome,” said a grateful Richard Cockerill. “He’s born and bred in Hinckley, he’s only ever wanted to play for Leicester and he’ll play anywhere. Of all the kickers in the club to land a kick for 31-31 I’d back him to have the minerals to do it.” RK

Match report: Gloucester 31-38 Leicester
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Graham Kitchener

Friday night lights: Leicester’s Graham Kitchener is hoisted highest against Gloucester. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

6) Should forward passes get a more thorough examination?

What constitutes a forward pass was a theme of the opening weekend, as it has been in matches in the southern hemisphere this year. It is now about the movement of a passer’s arms as well as hands, but the delivery from Marland Yarde to Joe Marchant for what turned out to a decisive score in Quins’ victory looked forward. The respective directors of rugby thought so, but it was allowed after a review. Various camera angles were used, but touch judges would appear to have the best view, looking along the line. A couple of try-scoring passes at Gloucester on Friday night looked suspect and if it becomes about hands and arms, decisions will become subjective with the path the ball takes irrelevant. Maybe someone will come up with a programme like that for lbw decisions in cricket to iron out inconsistencies, but until then surely a pass is forward when a player who is on the same line as the distributor has to reach out to grasp the ball. Is it down to the laws of physics or what the eyes see? PR

Match report Harlequins 21-19 Bristol

Newly promoted Bristol were no pushover for Harlequins at Twickenham.

Newly promoted Bristol were no pushover for Harlequins at Twickenham. Photograph: Seconds Left/Rex/Shutterstock

7) Townsend’s Glasgow demonstrate Pro12 qualities

Perhaps the best performance anywhere on the opening weekend of the domestic season came in Galway, where Glasgow inflicted Connacht’s worst home league loss since 2002. Stuart Hogg’s second-half try was a particular joy, the decoy running and angles involved a credit to the Warriors players and coaches. Gregor Townsend will become Scotland’s head coach next year and, on this evidence, Glasgow seem determined to end his tenure in style. Connacht, in fairness, did not look like recent Pro12 champions but Glasgow did little to undermine Townsend’s belief that the league is increasingly watchable. “I watch the Top 14 and Premiership and in terms of quality and ambition, I believe the Pro12 surpasses them”. RK

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