Rugby union: talking points from the Premiership weekend

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The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Gloucester’s Tom Savage receives treatment, Billy Vunipola was forced off with injury again, Jonathan Joseph faces a battle with Ben Te’o and and the Wasps head coach Dai Young has some thinking to do.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Composite: PPAUK, JMP/Rex/Shutterstock, Getty Images,</span>
Gloucester’s Tom Savage receives treatment, Billy Vunipola was forced off with injury again, Jonathan Joseph faces a battle with Ben Te’o and and the Wasps head coach Dai Young has some thinking to do. Composite: PPAUK, JMP/Rex/Shutterstock, Getty Images,

1) HIA’s overshadow another Friday night encounter

For the second Friday night in a row, a team has been reduced to 14 players after incurring a head injury, having already emptied their bench. Ten days ago it was Bath then it was Gloucester this time and while the Cherry & Whites claimed a second win of the season, they had to withstand considerable pressure from Worcester to do so. The issue was that Tom Savage suffered a head blow deemed serious enough that he had to be taken off permanently rather than for a head injury assessment and as a result, Ed Slater could not be brought back on. Had Savage gone off for an HIA, however, Slater would have been allowed to return. Todd Blackadder made his feelings clear when it was Sam Underhill who came off at Northampton and the Gloucester captain Willi Heinz did likewise. It is easy to sympathise with both. Gerard Meagher

2) Saracens struck by injury jinx again

When it rains it pours. There will not be a huge amount of sympathy, such is the strength of Saracens’ squad, but they have now lost a complete back-row of international quality. Last week they lost Schalk Burger to a four-week shoulder injury; this week Michael Rhodes and Billy Vunipola followed. Rhodes underwent a shoulder operation in the summer, but it has not settled. He failed a fitness test before the game on Saturday and requires another operation. He is expected to be out for 12 weeks. Then we come to the headline injury. Just before half-time of Saracens’ bonus-point win against Sale, Vunipola injured the same knee as he did against Argentina last November. There is always a concern when a player so big and athletic injures a key joint like a knee more than once. And this after he had just recovered from an injury to another, his shoulder. May his recovery be without complication. And permanent. Michael Aylwin

3) Further study needed on long-term implications of head injuries

As the debate between players and their club employers over issues which impact on welfare, such as the length of the season, the Stoop at times resembled a battleground. Three players failed head injury assessments, including Chris Robshaw who was temporarily knocked out after a challenge, two replacements limped off and after one passage of play, three players lay on the ground receiving treatment. It was not as if Leicester’s victory in a match in which the lead changed hands seven times was unusual statistically; it merely reflected the growing physical toll of a contact sport in which the ball in play time continues to increase overall, not least because of law tweaks. The clubs maintain they look after players and see no reason to change their plans to increase the season in England to 10 months from 2019-20, but it is too early yet to gauge what the physical and mental toll will be on players when they reach middle age and beyond. In the United States last week, an American footballer who committed suicide in jail where he was being held for murder was found to have had the most advanced case of brain disease in a young man seen by experts at a leading medical institute. Time, surely, for caution. Paul Rees

<span class="element-image__caption">Chris Robshaw lies on the turf with a head injury and receives treatment.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Craig Mercer - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images</span>
Chris Robshaw lies on the turf with a head injury and receives treatment. Photograph: Craig Mercer - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images

4) Subtle Joseph may lose out to physical Te’o in England reckoning

Jonathan Joseph may have sped, stepped and shimmied his way to the try-line for a scintillating score while Bath were on top against Newcastle but all things considered it was a mixed afternoon for the outside-centre. He is usually a solid defender (he dealt with Manu Tuilagi particularly well on the opening weekend of the season) but he fell off Simon Hammersley too easily in the buildup to DTH van der Merwe’s try for the Falcons. The sense at Bath is that Joseph is not so much out of favour with England, more having a breather, and that he will be included in the autumn internationals squad – named at the end of October. Joseph is not as physically imposing as someone like Ben Te’o, however, and it counted against him on the Lions tour. Eddie Jones will have been impressed with his try, equally concerned at Joseph’s lack of punch. Gerard Meagher

5) Jones facing a potential blindside dilemma

There is no doubting that with everyone fit, Jim Mallinder would prefer Courtney Lawes in his second-row but it was interesting to see him crop up at blindside flanker nonetheless – just a day after his England and British & Irish Lions team-mate Maro Itoje had done the same. Lawes is playing with such authority at the moment that it does not really matter what number he wears but with so many locks available to Eddie Jones at present there is every chance one of the aforementioned two will end up wearing No6 in the autumn. Or there would be if it was not for the fact that Chris Robshaw is currently one of the first names on Jones’s team-sheet. Increasingly, Jones has a decision to make – does he stick by Robshaw or opt for a more dynamic blindside that offers more at the lineout, as is increasingly becoming fashion? Gerard Meagher

6) Wasps facing speed bumps

A one-sided rerun of last season’s thrilling final suggested two things: Exeter’s champions are still in the groove while Wasps’ old rhythm has disappeared. Both clubs have injuries but something more fundamental has gone missing with Dai Young’s side: the unshakeable belief that, regardless of circumstances, they can conjure up more points than their opponents. Their back row needs an injection of pace, their front five is struggling to dominate teams and the absence of Danny Cipriani and, perhaps most glaringly, the departed Kurtley Beale has doused their creative spark. This was the first time for 18 months Wasps have lost successive league games and their upcoming fixtures – Bath, Saracens, Ulster and Harlequins – are all potential speed bumps. As Young ruefully observed afterwards: “If you give any team 60% of possession and territory, let alone the champions, it’s going to be a long day at the office. We’ve got to keep working at it, there’s no magic cure.” Robert Kitson

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