Tuesday 16 January 2018

Try count proves 'negative' jibes just don't stack up

Chris Hewitt

More than one former England international has been heard moaning and groaning about the "negative" rugby played over the first four rounds of English Premiership matches.

This proves two things: that ex-players always believe the game was better in their day, and that some of them -- perhaps even a majority -- are unable to draw the right conclusions from the evidence placed before them.

For the avoidance of doubt, try-scoring is up on last year -- not obviously a sign that defences are more dominant now than they were 12 months ago.

If Harlequins continue their current strike rate their touchdown tally will be in the high 80s by the season's end. Northampton, Wasps and Worcester are also ahead of the game, statistically speaking. So too Exeter, who will smash last term's try-count to smithereens if they carry on.

There are, as ever, exceptions to the general rule, with Bath and Saracens doing more than anyone to buck the trend.

Bath lost the best of their attacking selves when they engineered the departure of the Australian coach Steve Meehan at the end of the 2010/11 campaign and, despite the promising progress of Kyle Eastmond -- aka 'Jason Robinson 2' -- on the right wing, it will take their new think-tank a while to address the issue.

Saracens, meanwhile, have won themselves a Premiership title since Brendan Venter returned to South Africa for family reasons the best part of two years ago, but their rugby has not been anywhere near as joyful.

All of which makes tomorrow's derby meeting between 'Quins, the reigning champions, and Sarries, their immediate predecessors, rather interesting.

The home side are scoring more heavily than any of their rivals: only Sale, bottom of the table and a coach light as a consequence, have scored fewer tries than Mark McCall's team.

The unusually devout Saracens travelling supporters can only pray that McCall sees his way to addressing the drought, but as the Ulsterman claimed 'Wengeritis' in failing to see Chris Ashton's yellow-card offence at Exeter last week, despite endless big-screen replays, those prayers may fall on deaf ears.

In some ways, Saracens are reminiscent of England: deeply committed, highly physical, intelligently structured ... and short of ideas in midfield.

But for Alex Goode at full-back and Ashton out wide, they would play their rugby in an imaginative vacuum.

More than anything, they need Owen Farrell to bring something new to his game -- something that might allow him to ask questions of Harlequins' resident All Black playmaker Nick Evans in the way Evans asks them of everyone else.

Come to think of it, the England coaches would like to see it too.

And what if Farrell fails to deliver? There is an outside-half at Gloucester who has ideas oozing from every pore. His name? Freddie Burns.

Bath v Sale (today, 2.15)

A No 10 match-up between Olly Barkley, on his way out of Bath, and Danny Cipriani, still finding his way in at Sale, would have been intriguing. Unfortunately for Cipriani, the axe has fallen early. Nick Macleod replaces him in a side shorn of injury absentees Dwayne Peel and Richie Gray.

Leicester v Exeter (today, 2.15)

With the flanker Tom Johnson and the centre Jason Shoemark back from injury, the West Countrymen travel at something close to full strength. Leicester, who lost this fixture last term, give Daniel Bowden a competitive debut in midfield and reinstall England No 8 Thomas Waldrom in their back-row.

Harlequins v Sarries (tomorrow, 2.0)

This heavyweight bout at the Stoop will be fought over the full 12 rounds. Not for the first time this season, Quins prefer the straight-line speed of Tom Guest to the close-quarter dynamism of Maurie Fa'asavalu in the back row. Sarries recall some top operators, including Schalk Brits and Steve Borthwick.

L Welsh v Gloucester (tomorrow, 3.0)

Gloucester are not great ones for winning away from home, so a third straight victory for the Exiles will not be wholly out of the question tomorrow. Ben Morgan is injured, so Sione Kalamafoni shifts to No 8 for the visitors. Seb Jewell starts at full-back for the home side. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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