It may be too soon for bold predictions, but here is one anyway. Saracens won’t be relegated — well, not unless the mid-season audit of their accounts uncovers another salary cap breach.
If their fate comes down to on-field matters, the beleaguered Gallagher Premiership champions will survive giving all the rest a 35-point head-start.
That was their penalty for past cap offences, but their plight has galvanised them, as illustrated by Friday night’s victory at Bath.
Owen Farrell’s Saracens should still stave off relegation despite being docked 35 points
Mark McCall’s squad contains such a depth of class and tactical conviction that Saracens can absorb a large number of Test call-ups and still end up with a mid-table league finish.
That spells trouble for Leicester. On the evidence of their ordeal at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, the Tigers’ current, 22-point advantage over Saracens won’t be enough to save them. By the end of the one-sided East Midlands derby, they had become a rabble. For those so familiar with their years of domestic dominance, it was a jarring spectacle.
Every now and then, Leicester managed to drive a maul, but there wasn’t much else for the visitors to fall back on. Their lineout was a car-crash — a problem area crying out for Steve Borthwick’s expertise, whenever the England forwards coach makes his move to Welford Road.
Northampton beat Leicester in East Midlands Derby and the Tigers could be in trouble
Head coach Geordan Murphy may struggle to keep his regime intact at Leicester Tigers
But Eddie Jones must hope they both avoid relegation
From Eddie Jones’ point of view, Saracens being relegated would be very bad news. Leicester going down wouldn’t be ideal either.
The Australian claimed that some Saracens players might not want to appear in the Six Nations in order to aid their club’s survival mission, but that is a red herring. If he picks a player, they must be released by their club under Regulation 9, unless they retire from Test rugby.
So instead, Jones might be tempted to rotate his squad during the championship and rest some senior players. If, for example, he decided to release 10 regulars back to their clubs, Saracens would receive more of a boost than many rivals, by virtue of having a larger England contingent.
If the champions or the Tigers drop to the Championship, their Red Rose men would need to seek loan deals to keep them in the Premiership and available for national service. However neutral he must be, Jones must hope it doesn’t come to that.
The Tigers need urgent defensive guidance, too. At present, they lack organisation, resilience and sheer bloody-minded spirit.
Geordan Murphy’s regime cannot remain intact if it doesn’t at least look like the players are unified and driven to perform an escape act.
Wasps are also on the endangered list, but they appear to have slightly more quality in the ranks, so they could recover.
What a contrast there was between Leicester and the soaring Saints. Chris Boyd has overseen a stunning transformation at Northampton. His team are fluent and dynamic, while still possessing a tough edge of physicality, as can be expected under the guidance of a canny New Zealander.
It is glorious to witness the back-line exuberance of George Furbank, Tom Collins and Rory Hutchinson, alongside a rampaging force of nature in the giant form of Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Time will tell if the Saints have enough reserves of forward clout to prevail in arm-wrestle contests and push title favourites Exeter, but they are liberated and lethal.
Northampton could be heading to the Premiership final, while Leicester could be heading to the Championship. How times have changed.
Matt Proctor finished a sweeping team move for Northampton Saints in beating Leicester
OSPREYS IN TURMOIL
Ospreys chairman Rob Davies has suggested a British and Irish League could be launched by the 2022-23 season. It would be an enticing prospect, but Premiership clubs may take some convincing about what would be in it for them — and the impact on European events.
Meanwhile, the Ospreys may have stopped functioning entirely by the summer of 2022, the way they’re going. Results have been dire and so was the way they handled the removal of Allen Clarke as head coach.
It would be a wonder if Wales flanker Justin Tipuric decides to stick around after this season, rather than accepting a lucrative deal at Bristol or in France. And heaven help the Ospreys when Alun Wyn Jones decides to retire.
New Northampton centre Matt Proctor’s second against Leicester was an early Try of the Season contender — a sweeping raid from deep, showcasing the Saints’ power, precision and artistry.
TOP TRY-SAVING TACKLE
Well, two really — Exeter wing Tom O’Flaherty stopped Wasps’ Matteo Minozzi near the corner then Luke Cowan-Dickie raced back to bundle Nizaam Carr into touch by the flag.
Ex-Ireland captain Rory Best was lectured by referee Nigel Owens, then the pair exchanged a hug as the Barbarians skipper was replaced in Cardiff and earned a stirring ovation.
O’Flaherty made a scorching break for a solo try at Sandy Park but Cowan-Dickie burst out of the usual hooker mould with his own charge — bouncing off defenders and carrying one-handed.
Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie produced an impressive charge through the Wasps defence
LOTS OF LEADERS
Worcester hooker Niall Annett became the club’s sixth captain of the season when he led the Warriors against Sale. The rotation is working, as Alan Solomons’ side won again.
After Saracens beat Bath, there was an impromptu gathering of the Vunipolas for a picture opportunity after brothers Billy and Mako had been joined on the field by cousin Manu.
Johnny McNicholl claimed a try on his debut for Wales after the Kiwi wing spoke about learning the anthem. If he keeps scoring and singing, he will endear himself to the Welsh public.
Wing Johnny McNicholl made a try-scoring debut for Wales in beating the Barbarians
THE LAST WORD
The schedule for the next Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 is expected to be confirmed this week. It is set to culminate in Tests at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Cape Town Stadium and at the massive ‘Soccer City’ (FNB) Stadium in Soweto.
There were rumours that the host union wanted all the Tests to be played at altitude to favour the Springboks but Cape Town is the location which will most appeal to the fabled Red Army of British and Irish fans.
The abbreviated eight-match campaign is likely to feature tour games against Super Rugby sides the Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers — meaning stop-offs in Durban, Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town before the internationals.
There is also likely to be a fixture against the Emerging Springboks. Here’s hoping the British & Irish Lions have secured a South African commitment to field strong provincial teams.
If the Boks intend to keep their key men in camp – as is now the norm – the Super Rugby teams should be allowed to recruit exiles based in Europe on short-term loan deals.
Due to heavy rain the surface at Bath’s The Rec was cutting up and verging on unsafe
There has been a vast amount of rain around the country of late, but even so, the pitch at The Rec was in a terrible state on Friday night when Bath played Saracens.
At a time of so much angst about the growing use of artificial surfaces, which can cause skin burns and are deemed to put a strain on joints, this was no advert for grass.
When the turf cuts up as badly as it is doing at Bath, it can lead to a significant injury risk by giving way under boots in scrums and other contact areas. The West Country club are long overdue a ground upgrade — and they need a pitch upgrade too.