Rugby union: talking points from the weekend's action

Guardian sport
Marcus Smith was one of the few fly-halves to shine, Scarlets are set to make an impact in Europe while Matt Toomua is improving quickly. Composite: Rex/Rex/Getty

1) Where have all the fly-halves gone?

It has taken a series of injuries to highlight it, but there would appear to be a paucity of fly-halves in England at present. Bath have a headache there with Rhys Priestland injured and Freddie Burns almost certainly suspended following his red card in his first start for his home-town club against Worcester. Wasps, meanwhile, had to move Rob Miller in from full-back, with both Jimmy Gopperth and Danny Cipriani injured, and Dai Young admitted that finding anyone available to bring in at short notice would not be easy. The growing injury rate is alarming but if it is indeed down to an increase in the number of collisions then it would make sense that No10s are in the firing line. The fact that an 18‑year‑old with just five Premiership starts under his belt is already on England’s radar may suggest a deeper problem, however – though it must be said Marcus Smith played with real poise against Sale on Friday. Gerard Meagher

Match report: Bath 29-13 Worcester

2) George knocking hard on Jones’s England door

The Champions’ Cup now awaits for both these teams but soon enough England will have to decide who starts at hooker against Argentina at Twickenham in November. The watching Eddie Jones remains a loyal fan of Dylan Hartley’s leadership qualities but Jamie George could hardly be pressing his on-field claims any harder. His three tries against Wasps may have all been of a pushover variety but the 26-year-old, the Lions’ starting Test hooker in New Zealand, is a lot more than just an impact sub. While Jones clearly reckons Hartley is better utilised from the start, rather than as a replacement, he has already made clear that others are “biting at his ankles.” It will now be interesting to see how George goes for Saracens over the next two big European weekends against Hartley’s Northampton and Ospreys. He is currently his country’s best hooker on form – and may even develop into a national captaincy contender alongside his Sarries’ colleagues Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje if he can nail down a regular starting place. Robert Kitson

Match report: Saracens 38-19 Wasps

Jamie George scored three tries against Wasps and is putting Dylan Hartley under pressure in the England squad. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

3) Socino’s sin-bin reveals rulebook’s ambiguities

It felt at the time as if the first of two second-half yellow cards against Newcastle, shown to Juan Pablo Socino for raising an elbow as Ian Whitten tackled him, could have been red, certainly in the current climate. But Dean Richards was not impressed. “I felt it was a bit harsh considering the amount of times people do it. It was just highlighted because the guy stayed down. If his poor tackling technique causes someone to be sin-binned I think it’s a poor show, really.” Certainly, if the tackle had been lower the incident would not have occurred. It is also natural to brace yourself for contact. In the split-second world of the rugby match, that can lead to an instinctively raised arm – and thus elbow. The referee, to his great credit, asked for the incident to be replayed at normal speed. On balance, yellow was probably right, but this is a tough game on everyone. Michael Aylwin

Match report: Exeter 34-24 Newcastle

Juan Pablo Socino is shown a yellow card. Photograph: PPAUK/REX/Shutterstock

4) Marler should be England’s No1

His position may not be the most glamorous but you would be hard-pressed to find a more in-form Premiership player than Joe Marler. His two-week injury absence coincided with back-to-back defeats for Harlequins but he was back at the coalface in their bonus-point win against Sale. Quins’ lengthy injury list has meant they have been lacking a bit of ball-carrying muscle and Marler provides that in spades. It may not be to everyone’s taste but he achieved precisely what he set out to in his unsavoury spat with James Haskell and must be seen as a key factor in his team’s success at Wasps. Eddie Jones has no shortage of loosehead props and it is hard to look past Mako Vunipola when he is firing on all cylinders. That has not yet been the case this season, however, and while Ellis Genge is the coming man Marler’s form means he deserves the No1 jersey this autumn. GM

Match report: Harlequins 42-26 Sale

5) Toomua thriving under cool O’Connor

There were times on Saturday, especially during the first half, when London Irish seemed intent on giving Leicester the freedom of the Thames Valley, but there can be little doubt that the partnership between George Ford and Matt Toomua is swiftly improving. Toomua in particular shone at the Madejski Stadium – firing a 25-metre pass precisely where Jonny May would have wanted it for his sixth try in six matches for the Tigers. Toomua is a classy operator indeed and his arrival was cause for excitement last season, only for a long-term knee injury to cut him down in his second match. He has already started six games this term however and Matt O’Connor is already reaping the benefits. The head coach can also take credit for how he has seamlessly followed two opening defeats with four successive wins. O’Connor is not the type to panic and Leicester’s response demonstrates why. GM

Match report: London Irish 27-28 Leicester

6) Decision time for Mallinder

Northampton may have lost their place at the top of the Premiership after a first defeat against Gloucester for four years, but after a couple of mediocre seasons they look a more complete side. Attacking closer to the gain line, they are securing quicker ball at the breakdown and spreading play. With Stephen Myler, a replacement in the last two rounds, fit again their director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, has a tactical decision to make. Myler prefers to stand deeper than Harry Mallinder, who has started at No10 in the opening six weeks of the campaign. Piers Francis made his Saints debut at Kingsholm, playing at 12 with Luther Burrell outside him, but Myler’s deeper positioning makes the hard-running Burrell a better foil for him at 12. Myler is one of the most accurate goalkickers in the league and with Champions Cup matches against Saracens and Clermont Auvergne coming up, will his availability prompt a change of direction? Paul Rees

Northampton Saints’ Stephen Myler is tackled by Gloucester’s Gareth Denman. Photograph: Ashley Western - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images

7) Celtic pair steam into Champions Cup

Glasgow and the Scarlets go into the Champions Cup as the leaders of their respective conferences and look equipped to make impacts. Glasgow are the only side in one of Europe’s three major leagues with a 100% record after the opening six weeks of the season following their narrow victory at the Cheetahs, while the Scarlets prevailed by a point in Saturday night’s derby at Ospreys, scoring three tries without reply. They again showcased their ability to find space where none appears to exist and sealed their victory with some forward muscle. Glasgow also play with pace and energy and after years of largely anonymous campaigns in European rugby’s premier competition by teams from Scotland and Wales, they have two sides this year capable of making more than a ripple. PR

8) All Blacks’ whitewash shows up rickety rivals

Like Australia last month, South Africa rebounded from a heavy defeat against the All Blacks to push them close in the return. It was less a sign of revival as evidence of the motivating power of indignation and the desire for redemption. They need to be able put on that performance from a cold start if the Springboks are to be harder to beat on their tour of Europe next month than they were a year ago. New Zealand were again far ahead of the rest in the Rugby Championship, the only team to win more matches than they lost. Australia again showed an attacking flourish against Argentina in Mendoza, but they are defensively suspect and that leads to indiscipline. The Pumas remain a team in transition, inspiring at times but falling apart all too frequently and fading in the final quarter, as they again did on Saturday night. They need to cast their net wider than one Super Rugby team. PR

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