Rugby union: talking points from the weekend's Premiership action

Guardian sport

1) Tigers’ plight summed up by brilliance and defeat

This is not the first time Leicester have proved themselves capable of the sort of rugby not even a team like Exeter can live with. And it is not the first time they have proved themselves incapable of sustaining it. Brilliance and defeat. It is one sure sign of a collective in turmoil, knowing they should be in a better place than they are but consistently freezing just as they threaten to attain it. And then the sight of their equable director of rugby, Geordan Murphy, who in his day represented the very definition of coolness above a storm, dissolving into a finger-pointing fury with one of Welford Road’s own further hints at a meltdown in Leicester’s core. Which will out, the brilliance of the personnel or the unprecedented pressures of life at the bottom with a team like Saracens in pursuit? These are strange times. Michael Aylwin

Match report: Leicester 22-31 Exeter

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2) Wasps looking over their shoulders after defeat

“Christmas is cancelled” was how Dai Young summed up his feelings after watching Wasps throw away a 17-point lead against Harlequins, and it was hard not to sympathise. He has been at the club since 2011 and it clearly hurts him deeply to see Wasps so lacklustre for large spells in their festive fixture in front of a bumper crowd. With one win from six matches, Wasps are now in a similar boat to Leicester. A side who have won the Premiership title six times are now nervously looking over their shoulder because in all likelihood Saracens, now up to -13 points, will catch both of them. They meet each other in the middle of February, when internationals will be focusing on the Six Nations, and tantalisingly in early May. Worcester and London Irish can still get dragged into it, but already those two fixtures are looking significant. Gerard Meagher

Match report: Wasps 22-28 Harlequins

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3) Saracens’ trip to Exeter loaded with significance

Next Sunday, the Premiership will see its biggest match of the season so far when Saracens visit Exeter, and not just because it involves the sides that have contested the last two play-off finals at Twickenham. The Chiefs have been the most vocal of the champions’ critics following their fine and points deduction for breaching the salary cap regulations, and there are unlikely to be any seasonal greetings from the hosts. Exeter have won the last three Premiership matches between the sides at the ground but, with Sarries set on survival rather than the play-offs, they have little scope for error, still 17 points adrift at the bottom. All the more so because they face being without at least 12 players for all or part of the Six Nations during which six matches will be played. Fairness does not end with the salary cap. A play-off for the bottom four? Paul Rees

Saracens 47-13 Bristol

4) Rees-Zammit deserves Wales reward from Pivac

Louis Rees-Zammit turned in a performance for Gloucester against Worcester that has everyone on both sides of the Severn talking. Rees-Zammit scored two tries and set up another as he continued to add to his burgeoning reputation in Gloucester’s 36-3 win. He is quick, very quick, and big enough for senior rugby too, despite being not turning 19 until February. He is also Welsh, as he pointed out on social media after the match, and while he could in theory qualify to play for England in future on residency grounds, his destiny is in red rather than white. The question now is whether Wayne Pivac will pick him for the Six Nations. Pivac spoke of how he wanted to make better use of Wales’s exiles programme recently. What better way to do so than include Rees-Zammit when he names his squad in the new year? GM

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5) Sharks scent top-four finish

Northampton lost their place at the top of the Premiership following their sixth defeat at Sale in their past seven league visits. Exeter and Gloucester are the only visiting teams to have won in the league at the AJ Bell Stadium in 2019 and with Saracens battling at the other end of the table, the Sharks are aiming for a top-four finish. “I think we’ve got a squad to operate at the top end of the division,” said their director of rugby, Steve Diamond. “The top four at Christmas was always a target. We go to Bath next and who knows where we can be in the next fortnight.” Diamond is used to operating on a budget some way below the salary cap, but not this season when, for example, he has to keep four international wings happy. Paul Rees

6) Exiles struggle with Premiership pace

It was only last month that London Irish were hammering Leicester 36-11 and making a bit of a statement about their Premiership potential this season. If they serve up any more turkeys like their 38-10 home defeat to Bath, however, they will be swiftly dragged back down into the dogfight at the bottom of the table, with Saturday’s game at Worcester suddenly assuming extra significance. It does not help that their All Black wing, Waisake Naholo, will not be back from New Zealand – where he is attending the birth of his first child – until the middle of January. On top of that, Ireland international Paddy Jackson has now pulled a hamstring. The club’s director of rugby, Declan Kidney, has been around long enough to know one bad day is not necessarily the end of the world but, equally, Irish are now finding the Premiership is relentlessly tough. “With the way the league has gone so far, everybody is beating everybody,” said Kidney. “Worcester will be hurting, they had a similar result to ourselves and will have an extra day’s turnaround and home advantage. It will be a big challenge but we knew every game would be this year.” Robert Kitson

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