Industrious backrows, resurgent Irish, Falcons’ wings clipped and more stories from the 19th round of the Aviva Premiership.
Is Jono Ross the signing of the season?
Come Friday evening we had, for the most part, all but forgotten England's woes in the Six Nations and Champions Cup, shifting focus to the return to Premiership action with Sale Sharks hosting Wasps in the league’s second most northerly stadium, the AJ Bell.
A tight affair on paper that transferred to the pitch Friday evening, with Sale emerging the victors through a dramatic last-minute Marland Yarde try. Captain Jono Ross personified the Sharks’ performance. He was as aggressive in the carry as he was opportunistic with his post-contact offloading. Along with his South African comrade, Faf de Klerk at scrum-half, Ross could legitimately be the signing of the season.
The forward-centric affair was broken up with a stunning cross-field kick from AJ MacGinty to send Byron McGuigan over for Sale's second try. The American standoff is really coming into his own in his second season in Manchester.
Dai Young will be severely disappointed with his side, this is not the first time this season they've thrown away games they looked like winning. The first 20 minutes had indicated a heavy Wasps victory after two Josh Bassett tries and one Elliot Daly special from the kicking tee 50 metres out.
The men from Coventry, Leamington Spa if we're being honest, look to have regressed since their top of the league finish last season.
As always we finish on a positive. Jack Willis is looking like the real deal, he may have been wearing six on his back last Friday, but he's beginning to raise serious questions as to whether Tom Curry or Sam Underhill are still the next best thing on England's openside.
Wasps may be losing James Haskell and Guy Thompson at the end of the season, but they are well stocked in the backrow with Willis and younger brother Tom working their way through the ranks.
Looseheads run riot
The 2018 instalment of 'The Clash' at Twickenham on Saturday was perhaps not the centrepiece intended but brought about plenty of discussion points nevertheless. Tigers took the day in convincing fashion with a 19-34 victory.
In traditional fashion, Leicester are ramping up in the lead up to the playoffs. They now sit in third place in the table, although are far from in a stable position with sixth-placed Sale only three points behind them.
Earlier in the season I had been critical of Tigers' summer signing of Sione Kalamafoni, signed to fill the coveted role of Leicester's barnstorming number eight. However, the Tongan international has since made me eat my words, with a two-try haul and a man of the match performance at Twickenham. His work rate is through the roof and is carrying tirelessly for Matt O'Connor's side. An injury to the Pacific Islander would put a major spanner in the works for Leicester's play-off ambitions.
Ellis Genge has returned for his first start after shoulder surgery in pretty spectacular fashion, nearly seeing two opposing tightheads to the bin at scrum time.
He may not have had one of his classic bullocking games in the loose on the weekend, but he's really starting to look the part of a test prop. Although I'm sure Beno Obano and Alec Hepburn will have something to say about it...
If you managed to come up with a mathematical formula to represent Obano's progression this season you'd be frantically stapling another page to the top of your sheet of paper to keep the graph going. The Bath prop was monstrous against Leicester, carrying like a steam train and tackling like a man possessed. There will be a few bruised ribs around Welford Road this week.
Bath may enjoy an increase in ticket stubs this week but will be no less frustrated than they have been so far this season. They will take few positives away from their Twickenham defeat, but the repetitive excellence of Obano and the return to fitness of Francois Louw should be prominent.
A fragile mentality seems to be plaguing Bath, struggling to back up their convincing passages of play with a victory once all is said and done.
What is happening at Quins?
In one of the three non-televised games of the weekend, Harlequins went down 5-35 against relegation favourites London Irish. Now, I have been touting Irish for an end of season fight for the last few weeks, but to lose by 30 points is a big, big issue for Quins.
Is John Kingston the right man to be at the head of the West London outfit? Why is a team full of England's most important players struggling so badly with an apparent lack of leadership? It seems there is a big issue with the mentality at Quins. Whatever it is that is currently plaguing Bath, Harlequins have the antibiotic-resistant strain.
Injury stricken Worcester clip Falcons’ wings
In last week’s podcast, I gave the Warriors slim hopes of claiming a victory this weekend, with Newcastle coming off the back of their best season in over a decade sat in fourth place. With no Francois Hougaard, Donnacha O'Callaghan or Ryan Mills, I couldn't see any way Worcester could topple the Falcons.
To their credit, Worcester were the dominant side for the vast majority of the game, despite needing a rush of points in the last 20 minutes to see the right end of the result. Leicester bound Will Spencer and fit again openside Sam Lewis have to take some credit here, doing their fair share in ensuring front foot ball and pestering Falcons pack.
Saracens European backlash punishes Saints
Northampton's aggregate score for the year against Saracens makes for ugly reading, 64-240 with two 60+ and two 50+ defeats will not be forgotten any time soon.
In fairness to Saints, their first-half was as good as any other across the weekend and should have been ahead if not for a malfunction from Teimana Harrison, knocking the ball on over the try line.
As with Bath and Harlequins, mentality was the telling factor at Franklin’s Gardens. Saints couldn't keep up with their first-half pace and the relentless pressure of a Saracens side scorned by Champions Cup and Six Nations disappointment. Saints’ first-half performance proves they still have what it takes to be a top-four side, all they need is the right direction and a light sprinkling of fresh faces to kick them back into gear. Incoming head coach Chris Boyd, from the Hurricanes, has plenty to work with at Northampton.
In Saracens camp, Alex Lozowski stepped in at outside centre with Marcello Bosch sat in the stands injured. He may have signed for Saracens as Owen Farrell's backup at fly-half but he showed real competency at 13 on Saturday. He hits gaps in defences as hard as runners in defence, with two very well taken breaks in the second half.
As with Saints' Piers Francis and Gloucester's Owen Williams, I'm not convinced Lozowski's best position is at 10. Whether he slots into the centres or at fullback, he can do some serious damage when not running the show.
Sarries are ramping up towards the end of the season in Tigers-esque fashion and with no European fixtures to divert their attention this year, they may well end up looking the favourites by the time the playoffs come around.
Gloucester of old rears itS head at Sandy Park
So far under Johan Ackermann's first season in charge, Gloucester seem transformed. The cliche of 'pulling a Gloucester' and throwing away a victory in the final minutes seemed a distant memory prior to the weekend.
On Sunday, however, the Gloucester of old reared its head and while they were never really in any position to be accused of throwing away a win, a phrase from the infamous Laurie Fisher tweet begins to echo in the subconscious, capitulation. Gloucester's inaccuracies were damaging, to say the least. Poor exits, knock-ons and unforced errors made an uphill task against the reigning champions the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest with Mako Vunipola hanging off the back of your support rope.
Exeter enjoyed a staggering 83% of possession and 88% territory in the first-half, giving Gloucester absolutely no chance of adding any further to an early Owen Williams penalty. Gloucester's first-half defensive effort should not go forgotten in the face of their defeat. The Gloucester defence run by Jonny Bell was monumental at times and should be credited with only conceding 22 points during the first 40. A crazy thing to say but when you only have 17% possession and 12% territory against the reigning English champions, that's not a bad haul.
Good news for Chiefs fans this week with fan favourite and summer Lions tourist Jack Nowell returning to fitness with two tries and one hell of a finish on Sunday.
Exeter are looking pretty unstoppable at the moment and with their England contingent fit and firing they are going to take some stopping. Realistically, I can only see Saracens mounting a serious challenge for Rob Baxter's men and they will need Billy Vunipola back to do it.
With hours of game time logged this weekend (staring at a screen and scribbling illegible notes), this is how I see the XV of the week taking shape.
Team of the week:
Things are really heating up at the top and bottom of the table at the moment, plenty of drama yet to unfold before all is said and done at the end of round 22.
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