Rugby union: talking points from the weekend

Guardian sport
Clockwise from the left: Kyle Sinckler, Jonny May and Leicester celebrate and Sale’s Byron McGuigan scores. Composite: Getty Images

1) Settled Tigers a different beast under O’Connor

The Tigers are changing their stripes. A side which for years built its foundation on set-pieces, an all-enveloping back row, controlling half-backs and immovable defence has evolved into one that can thrive on less than 50% possession. The midfield partnership of George Ford and Matt Toomua allows Leicester to react quickly in broken play and, after all the upheaval of the last few seasons, continuity has been a theme this season. Five rounds into the Premiership the director of rugby, Matt O’Connor, has made just one change in his back line, and that was enforced when Manu Tuilagi was injured after the opening weekend. The wings Jonny May and Nick Malouf have scored seven of the 12 league tries between them, profiting from a broader range of passing, and both added to their tally against the champions in a match in which the home side spent two-thirds of the match in their own half and had just 38% of possession. Paul Rees

• Match report: Leicester 20-13 Exeter

2) Sluggish starts proving costly for London Irish

It is distressing enough for London Irish that they have been resoundingly beaten in each of their past four matches, but perhaps more troubling for Nick Kennedy and his side is that they have failed to pick up any losing or try bonus points along the way. At home against Northampton the previous weekend they were not a million miles away and again, on Friday in Newcastle, they were a try short. On both occasions, slow starts – or rather, fast starts from the opposition – have been pivotal and it is a problem that needs addressing. Next week Irish host Leicester in Reading before the two-week European break. A breather from the Premiership will be welcome indeed but with his team badly in need of momentum, Kennedy will be desperate to ensure it does not come on the back of another match in which the Exiles end up empty-handed. Gerard Meagher

3) Sinckler’s brush with the law book could raise eyebrows

As expected, Kyle Sinckler has been cited for “making contact with the eye and/or eye area” of Michael Paterson. The big question is whether he is guilty of rugby’s unmentionable sin – gouging. The law book does not mention the word, preferring the vaguer terminology above. That covers a multitude of sins, as Chris Ashton found when his innocuous brushing of the face of Luke Marshall effectively ended his international career. Sinckler’s brush with Paterson looked more significant, but to rest your hand on a player’s face is one thing, to dig into the eye another. His prospects of avoiding a lengthy ban are improved by an amendment to the sanction definitions earlier this year, which separate “contact with the eye(s)” (lower entry 12 weeks) from “contact with the eye area” (lower entry four). The main issue should be how much pain/damage he caused. That will rest largely on the testimony of Paterson, who was not a happy man at the time. Michael Aylwin

• Match report: Northampton 30-22 Harlequins

Kyle Sinckler, right, may face a ban for gouging. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

4) Sale rout hammers home Gloucester’s need for stability

It was the kind of evening Sale had in mind when they spent the summer recruiting Faf de Klerk and James O’Connor to add some stardust to an already talented side. A try for O’Connor on his debut, three for Byron McGuigan, two for Denny Solomona – including one inside the first minute – and, with the 57-10 scoreline, a biggest victory in 14 years. As Steve Diamond, the Sale director of rugby, said, “it was a freak win” – but Gloucester’s capitulation on Friday was disappointing, if perhaps not a surprise. Under Johan Ackermann, Gloucester have secured two narrow victories at home and been comfortably beaten on each of their away trips. In recent years the only thing consistent about Gloucester has been their inconsistency and with Ackermann, who arrived late in pre‑season, still getting his feet under the table, that is unlikely to change soon. Gerard Meagher

5) Potent Pennell a glimmer of hope amid Worcester’s woes

Eddie Jones has recently said that England would win the World Cup with 15 Chris Robshaws and you wonder whether Worcester would still be at the foot of the table had they 15 Chris Pennells. That is not to do a disservice to his team-mates but Pennell shines like a rare beacon so often when he plays for Worcester. He is not the biggest full-back but he has genuine class and Saracens spent the first half launching high kicks in his direction, only for Pennell to gather every one. It forced Saracens, and in particular Alex Goode, to change tack and kick low and flat but the execution was not always on the money and it meant the visitors struggled to find their rhythm. It is abundantly clear that Worcester need Francois Hougaard back and dictating things from scrum-half but equally they will hugely benefit if Pennell has an injury-free run in the side. Gerard Meagher

• Match report: Worcester 3-25 Saracens

McCall wants coaches to have say in length of Premiership season

6) Bath’s young guns give England rare reason for cheer

English rugby has plenty of depth in certain positions but Eddie Jones is not overrun with ball-carrying, all-court No8s. With Billy Vunipola injured, the sight of Nathan Hughes limping off early in the second-half with a clearly painful dead leg was not an encouraging one but at least there was some positive news for the watching England forwards coach, Steve Borthwick. Between them Zach Mercer and Sam Underhill, with no little assistance from another up-and-coming England hopeful, Charlie Ewels, helped keep Wasps try-less at home on a day when the hosts had been looking to celebrate their 150th anniversary in style. Mercer is still only 20 but, playing at No6, was deservedly voted man of the match after putting in 25 tackles in a game described as an “arm-wrestle” by his director of rugby, Todd Blackadder. “What he needs to do without the ball has been a massive work-on. We’ve spent a lot of time working on that aspect of his game and it’s good to see him transferring it to the field. I’m so pleased for him that he had such a massive match.” Robert Kitson

Match report: Wasps 9-25 Bath

Bath’s Zach Mercer helped keep Wasps at bay on Sunday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

7) South Africa must provide opposition to New Zealand’s Championship cakewalk

For the fifth time in six years New Zealand have clinched the Rugby Championship. Not the first time they have won the tournament with something to spare, South Africa’s draw with Australia ensuring the All Blacks the title even before they beat Argentina 36-10 in Buenos Aires. Their final fixture in South Africa this weekend, however, is anything but a dead rubber given the 57-0 outcome when the two teams met in Albany last month. Last year the Springboks also lost 57-15 in Durban to the All Blacks and another 50-point drubbing really would be grim news for those trying to promote the Rugby Championship as something other than a foregone conclusion before a ball is kicked. South Africa, at least, will not be facing the outstanding Brodie Retallick who has ben released to be with his wife following the premature death of their baby son. Robert Kitson

• Jantjies misses late penalty as South Africa draw with Australia

8) Lion’s teeth overshadow Zebre’s feat

No rugby story all season will top the tale of a Welsh hooker being bitten by a lion before a game against the Cheetahs. Scott Baldwin looks set to be the butt of after-dinner jokes for the foreseeable future; the video has predictably gone viral already. Amid all the laughter few have given Italy’s Zebre much weekend credit for turning over Ulster 27-23. At long last Italy’s representatives in the Pro14 are showing some teeth of their own. Robert Kitson

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