Premiership Immortals - The Debate ShowAug 29
BT Sport has showed live coverage of every game from the Premiership season so far, so we decided to look back at the tape and cast a forensic eye over how each team has fared in the opening months as well as looking ahead to what 2021 might hold.
Will Wasps' victory over Exeter represent a changing of the guard? Can Premiership new-boys Newcastle maintain their unlikely quest for a play-off berth? And can Gloucester, one of English rugby's most prestiguous institutions, fight their way back from the abyss?
All that and more will be answered in what should be an enthralling six months of domestic competition as the race to make June's Twickenham final hots up.
1. Exeter Chiefs (1st last month)
The Chiefs swept all before them last season and the early signs are that they haven't lost an ounce of their insatiable appetite for success.
With the chasing pack desperately trying to cling on to their coat-tails, it's been another ominous start to the campaign for the kings of English rugby.
Even without a stellar cast of international talent to choose from, the Chiefs flew out of the blocks, winning their opening four games handily before relinquishing their perfect record to last season's runners-up Wasps.
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Repeatedly over-looked by Eddie Jones for England, Sam Simmonds has picked up where he left off last season, making game-changing interventions on both sides of the ball.
The back-rower tops the try-scoring charts going into 2021 having crossed the whitewash eight times already, including an opening-night hat-trick against Harlequins, earning him the Player of the Month award for November.
“Sam has been absolutely phenomenal. He’s just not stopped; he’s continued from where he left off last season which is a credit to him and his team," said BT Sport's Ugo Monye.
“It’s his consistent ability to forever be present in every single conversation whether it’s attacking, defending and being at the top of the pile that seems to be the environment in which Exeter Chiefs have created.
“For all the talk of hybrid players at the moment, I think it’s the case that Sam Simmonds is one of those guys. He does everything you expect from a traditional back-row player; defensively very strong, gets over the ball in the open field.
“There aren’t many better devastating runners in the Premiership than Sam Simmonds and I’m talking forwards or backs.”
A blockbuster round-six clash with second-placed Bristol Bears this weekend will provide a good barometer on whether the chasing pack have any realistic hope of closing the gap on the defending champs.
Saturday 9 January: (H) vs Bristol Bears - 4.15pm on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
2. Newcastle Falcons (Up from 12th)
Newcastle Falcons' triumphant return to the top flight of English rugby has been one of the early stories of the season.
Dean Richards' side began their Premiership campaign having not played a single minute of competitive rugby for over three months but the Falcons showed no signs of rust as they recorded wins over Bath, Sale and Wasps - historically three powerhouses of Premiership rugby.
Defeat to Bristol Bears last weekend is the only blot on their copy book, but the north-east outfit look like they're here to stay after many tipped them for an immediate return to the Championship.
Instead, fresh ideas from a rookie coaching staff made up of Nick Easter and former Falcons fly-half Dave Walder has Newcastle showcasing the kind of form that saw them make the play-offs at the end of 2018.
Newly-promoted sides are often regarded as a bit of a soft touch but the Falcons have proved anything but under the experienced stewardship of Richards.
Speaking ahead of their round six meeting this weekend, Gloucester head coach George Skivington heaped praise on the Falcons, saying: "They have come up angry and with a point to prove and it shows in their performances."
Results aside, the ease with which the Falcons have hit their straps in their return to the top flight has put the rest of the league on notice that Richards' men are here to stay.
Saturday 9 January: (H) vs Gloucester - 1.30pm on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
3. Bristol Bears (Down from 2nd)
Looking to build on last season's Challenge Cup success, the Bears are desperate to establish themselves as English rugby's next dynasty and the mission continues this weekend with a blockbuster clash against league and European Cup double winners Exeter.
Both clubs have collected 20 points from their first five games, losing just once, setting up a mouth-watering West Country derby.
Ahead of their round-six encounter, Pat Lam praised his counterpart Rob Baxter for creating a close-knit team culture that has become the blueprint for success.
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“The beauty of the Premiership is that you are able to build a culture and take a group and bring it through," said Lam. "You build relationships and Rob has done that with his group," he continued.
“Once you do that, you know which buttons to push and you see the bigger picture of where you want to be. They have absolute clarity of where they want to be and they have put the work in.
“If you look at the characteristics of the Exeter team, they certainly reflect Rob. They are honest, they are hard-working.
“Of course, there are all the flash things that people can do and individual talent, but ultimately it is about hard work and working for each other and that’s what you try to create."
Bristol began their campaign on a losing note, going down to Wasps on opening weekend but the Bears were without a host of international stars and the return of full-back Charles Piutau is sure to provide added impetus to their title challenge.
The former All Black showed what the Bears had been missing on his return to action, producing a delightful one-handed pick-up to score in a bonus-point victory over high-flying Newcastle last time out.
Saturday 9 January: (A) vs Exeter Chiefs - 4.15pm on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Ultimate
4. Wasps (Down from 3rd)
Having stumbled out of the traps, Wasps are beginning to show signs of the thrilling, free-flowing side that made them the team to watch after last season's lockdown hiatus.
Lee Blackett's men opened up their campaign with a narrow win over Bristol but back-to-back defeats to Gloucester and Newcastle left the Midlanders languishing in the bottom half of the table.
Since then, the 2008 Premiership winners have bounced back with eye-catching victories over Sale and Exeter to steady the ship and regain some footing in the race for the play-offs.
It's been a surge up the standings that's coincided with the scintillating form of Alfie Barbeary.
The back-rower has been the undisputed breakout star in the league so far and is quickly becoming one of the hottest properties in English rugby.
The 20-year-old has already caught the eye of England head coach Eddie Jones but, for now, it's his club performances that continue to earn him all the headlines.
Barbeary has exploded onto the scene since his debut, scoring eight tries in 12 senior games for Wasps.
He featured prominently at flanker to help fire Wasps to the Premiership final last season and has been influential at number eight in the early round of the 2020/21 campaign.
The 295 metres he has made carrying the ball so far this term is the most in the Gallagher Premiership and his defenders beaten total of 21 is only bettered by Leicester Tigers' Jasper Wiese and Facundo Cordero of Exeter Chiefs.
Sadly it's a tally he won't be adding to anytime soon however after Blackett confirmed the hooker-turned-flanker would likely miss the next 10-12 weeks after undergoing surgery on an ankle surgery.
Along with Josh Bassett, Jack Willis and Jacob Umaga, Barbeary has helped build a core of young Wasps players who are quickly becoming integral to Blackett’s team and their play-off aspirations.
The talented trio will have to be at their best in Barbeary's absence as Wasps bid to make it back-to-back appearances at Twickenham.
Friday 8 January: (A) vs Bath - 7pm on BT Sport 2 HD.
5. Sale Sharks (5th last month)
It's been a rocky start for Sale.
The Sharks kicked off the season as many people's tips to pose the most serious challenge to Exeter's hegemony, but defeat on opening night to newly-promoted Newcastle threatened to derail their campaign before it had even begun.
Three games into the season, long-serving Steve Diamond decided to leave the club for personal reasons, bringing to an end a 10-year tenure in Salford.
Former rugby league back Paul Deacon has been placed in temporary charge while Sale search for a permanent successor to Diamond and the ex-Bradford Bulls stand-off secured his first win as head coach with a nail-biting victory over Gloucester last weekend.
The game was marred by an ugly 30-man brawl between the two sides. Back-rower Dan du Preez has been handed a four-week ban for dangerous play in the same game.
The South Africa international will now miss Sale's Premiership match against Worcester and their European Champions Cup fixtures at Edinburgh and at home to Toulon.
Despite the drama on and off the pitch the Sharks begin 2021 fourth in the table, five points off top spot and handily placed for a play-off berth.
The Salford outfit have so far failed to put together back-to-back wins in the league but a Friday-night clash with Worcester Warriors represents the perfect opportunity to put some form together.
Friday 8 January: (H) vs Worcester Warrirors - 8pm on BT Sport Extra 3 HD.
6. Harlequins (Up from 8th)
Quins currently sit sixth in the table, three points off fourth-placed Sale and eight points adrift of early-season pace-setters Exeter and Bristol.
Harlequins have lost their last five games at the Stoop since beating Northampton at home in August, but Gustard's men will take heart from the last time they met London Irish in the Premiership with a 38-15 win for Quins snapping a a three-game losing streak.
In their last outing - before a Covid-19 outbreak saw their round-five fixture cancelled - Quins went down at home to Bristol for the first time since 2001.
Despite signs of progress, including the re-emergence of Marcus Smith as a genuine match winner, Gustard knows his team need to kick on and not rest on their laurels.
“We’re too easy to score against at the moment. Everyone is working hard at it, our principles we evaluate all the time," he said following defeat to Bristol.
“To lose at home, we’re hurting, and to lose a game we’re hurting but we’ve got to dust ourselves down."
Sunday 10 January: (H) vs London Irish - 2pm on BT Sport 1 HD & BT Sport Ultimate
7. Leicester Tigers (Up from 10th)
After two years where their Premiership status looked in constant jeopardy, Leicester Tigers look to have finally turned a corner under the stewardship of Steve Borthwick.
Victory on opening weekend over Gloucester was undone by defeat to London Irish the following round, but back-to-back wins in Europe helped the Tigers end the year on a high.
2021 got under way in perfect fashion as they recovered a 14-0 deficit to upset last season's semi-finalists Bath at Welford Road.
While Borthwick should take much of the credit in turning things around at Welford Road, new signing Jasper Wiese has been a revelation.
Wiese, the older brother of Sale forward Cobus, joined Tigers from the Cheetahs and has wasted little time in announcing himself in the Premiership.
In his four appearances so far Wiese has made 284 metres for Tigers - bettered only by Wasps forward Alfie Barbeary.
In the process he has beaten 21 defenders - just two fewer than Premiership chart-topping Exeter Chiefs' hot-stepping Argentinian back, Facundo Cordero.
In the backline, fly-half George Ford looks to have benefitted from the control and experience provided by the arrival of half-back Richard Wigglesworth.
The 37-year-old is the Premiership's record appearance-holder, having played 288 top flight matches, winning six domestic and three European titles during spells at Sale and Saracens.
Wigglesworth's big-game experience has proved vital as Borthwick looks to restore Leicester to English rugby's top table.
Game vs Northampton Saints cancelled.
8. Northampton Saints (Down from 6th)
A nightmare year for Northampton Saints finally ended on a high as they snapped their Franklin's Gardens losing streak in their last game of 2020, beating Worcester Warriors 29-10 on Boxing Day.
It was a crucial result for a Saints side that had hit rock bottom having lost all eight Premiership home games in 2020, with their last victory anywhere coming back in August.
In the aftermath of the Covid shutdown last season, Northampton’s fall from grace was stark and utterly unexpected as they crumbled from title contenders to a team paralysed by fear.
Having ended the Franklin's Gardens curse, rookie captain Lewis Ludlam is confident the East Midlanders can turn their season around.
He said: "It hasn’t been a pleasant time at the club over the last five or six months, as you can imagine," he said.
"We’re not where we want to be as a group of players. We’re trying not to let outside noise get into the camp but focus on our performance.
‘We’ve not been performing the way we can. It’s not nice to be losing games but I’ve always liked being the underdog and I think a few other lads in the team like that as well. It’s a challenge for us to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in and turn our season around."
The Saints have been robbed of the chance to build on victory over Worcester with two successive Premiership games falling victim to coronavirus but the enforced break could end up being in Northampton's favour come the end of the season as the physical toll of a congested calendar begins to take its toll.
Game vs Leicester Tigers cancelled.
9. Bath (Down from 4th)
After finishing last season as one of the form sides in the country, Bath begin 2021 ninth in the table having lost three of their opening four games.
Last weekend saw the west country outfit give up a 14-0 lead in a 36-31 defeat to Leicester Tigers to leave the one-time kings of English rugby facing the prospect of a relegation battle.
"We didn't perform well enough to win, so that's where the frustration comes from, added to that we showed in the opening quarter of the game that we could do that," said Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper.
"We were 14-0 up so the boys applied themselves fantastically well, and then from there on we've got to ask ourselves some questions."
Bath fans are no strangers to their team's inconsistency but there has been little to cheer about in the opening weeks of the new season that many hoped might bring silverware.
For a club boasting 12 internationals, many of whom will have aspirations on going tour with the British and Irish Lions in the summer, it's been a disappointing start.
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The one positive has been the form of Ben Spencer, who produced another special try in the defeat to Leicester to add to his collection of highlights since arriving at Farleigh House.
Reflecting on defeat to the Tigers, Hooper called for patience in what is set to be another taxing season.
He said: “At the moment we are right at the start of a tremendously unpredictable and long Premiership campaign, we have got work to do, of course we have, and there are a couple of easy areas of our game to improve - indiscipline being one.
“One thing I have got is a good group of lads who are working hard for each other... but we know exactly where we are and we have lots of opportunities like this to put it right.”
Friday 8 January: (H) vs Wasps - 7pm on BT Sport 2 HD.
10. Gloucester (Down from 7th)
It's certainly too early to say Gloucester are in crisis, but the Cherry and Whites find themselves in unfamiliar territory as 2021 begins.
The 2002 winners finished the year bottom of the Premiership table after they slipped to an agonising 22-19 defeat at Kingsholm to leave them with just six points from five games.
Despite their predicament, head coach George Skivington was encouraged by aspects of their performance in the recent defeat to Premiership and European champions Exeter Chiefs.
"We went toe to toe physically, at the set-piece," said Skivington.
He continued: "We attacked them well, for the best defence in Europe we managed to open them up a couple of times. There were plenty of positives but I won't lie, we were disappointed not to come away with at least a point."
There was always going to be a period of transition following the departure of high-profile personalities like Johan Ackermann and Danny Cipriani but the Cherry and Whites' position will be a concern for the Kingsholm faithful.
The prospect of relegation for a club with Gloucester's history and support is unthinkable, but it could become a reality if they fail to turn a corner in January, starting with a round six clash against in-form Newcastle.
Saturday 9 January: (A) vs Newcastle - 1.30pm on BT Sport 2 HD & BT Sport Ultimate
11. London Irish (11th last month)
10th position in the table flatters a London Irish side that have had two games cancelled already this season.
A round-four Boxing Day clash with Bath was axed after the Exiles returned a small number of positive Covid-19 tests.
Last weekend's match with Northampton Saints became the latest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic meaning the Exiles have played just three matches in 2020/21 so far.
It all means that Declan Kidney's side only have one victory to their name, that being the home win over Leicester Tigers in round two.
Fly-half Paddy Jackson's form is one cause for optimism from a chaotic opening few weeks. The 28-year-old has been in fine fettle, kicking 30 points over the course of their opening three fixtures in the 20/21 league season.
Two of those ended in defeat, away at Worcester and at home to Sale last Sunday, when Jackson set up Curtis Rona's try. In between, Jackson contributed 17 points in a 22-9 victory over Leicester Tigers.
We'll know more about the Exiles' chances of survival in the coming weeks and months.
Sunday 10 January: (A) vs Harlequins - 2pm on BT Sport 1 HD & BT Sport Ultimate
12. Worcester Warriors (Down from 9th)
Worcester, currently second-bottom in the Premiership, saw their last game against Harlequins postponed after positive Covid-19 cases in the Quins ranks.
They are without a win in five in all competitions, since a narrow 11-10 win over London Irish in November.
The Midlanders were only saved from the ignimony of ending the year rock bottom thanks to the cancellation of their round-five clash with Harlequins, for which they received four points.
Director of rugby Alan Solomons has brought in former England full-back Chris Pennell in a bid to provide some much-needed experience at Sixways, while the return of Scotland fly-half Duncan Weir should provide a boost in Worcester's survival mission.
With the Warriors facing another battle to avoid the drop, Solomons has thrown his weight behind the idea of scrapping relegation given the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Solomons said: "I have come out of a system where in Super Rugby, we were ringfenced from 1997-01."
He continued: "The Super Rugby was an incredible tournament and the standard was unbelievable and there was no promotion or relegation in that and it had absolutely no impact on it at all.
"There are a lot of benefits of ringfencing the Premiership, not just comercial ones either," he added.
"Of course there are arguments the other way and I understand that but obviously the impact Covid has had, I think, has sharpened everyone's minds on this particular question."
The Warriors have fought back from the brink before but Solomons will know this season's scrap for survival could be the most brutal yet with Covid-19 set to have a devastating impact on clubs with small squads like Worcester's.
Friday 8 January: (A) vs Sale Sharks - 8pm on BT Sport Extra 3 HD.