Midweek games allow players to break out
One thing about a strange situation like this Premiership season is that some guys are getting to play in games when, normally, they would not have the opportunity to do so.
That can be the making of some players. They can turn a coach’s head with a good performance against a strong team. Look at Sale Sharks, Exeter Chiefs and Bath this week.
You would have thought that Sale, travelling down to Coventry against a fully loaded Wasps side who had won five on the bounce and made it into the top four, might have struggled on Tuesday. Steve Diamond had picked his second string with a couple of first-choice regulars in there. That was important. You do not want to roll out a complete second team, like Leicester Tigers did against Bath. That way, you tend to get rolled over. You need some leaders in there. Jono Ross was not meant to start, but he came in for Daniel du Preez and his presence was clearly influential.
Sale’s performance in winning 20-11 will have been one of the highlights of their season so far. They had been rubbish since lockdown up until that point.
When I played at Leicester, we would rarely change a winning side. Unless you were a big international, you did not walk straight back into the line-up after an injury. You had to earn your spot all over again or had to hope that someone got injured.
We had a big list of good players who did not often get a shot. This fixture list will give an opening to talented players, who sometimes miss out on wider recognition. And they will take it.
I think a lot of the Exeter players end up in the shadow of some of the bigger names there. Don Armand is a great example. Some of his performances are just immense. Ross is Sale’s club captain, but I would still count him as one of those underrated players.
Elliott Stooke is another. He always plays well for Bath. Sometimes the media, coaches and even a player’s own team-mates can pigeonhole them. They think that because they do one thing well, they do not want to do something else or they are not even capable of that. A similar thing happened to me. I was pigeonholed as a versatile player.
Props and second-rowers at age-group level might get told they are great carriers and brilliant at clearing out rucks, but that they should not pass. It is like someone is slapping a sticker across your back which is difficult to pull off. Rugby does tend to pigeonhole people, and midweek games are a chance to break out of a stereotype and shine.
There are preconceptions around the way Alex Dombrandt plays, for instance. We know he is a skilful attacker, but his work-rate and defence for Harlequins are often questioned. That will be difficult for him. As for the star players, some are going to a different level. In my opinion, Tom Curry is stretching away from Sam Underhill with the quality of his output. Others are going backwards.
Ben Youngs and George Ford might be two of those because of the team they are playing in at Leicester. What sort of picture does it paint to Eddie Jones that his
two half-backs can barely scrape past London Irish at home?
Leicester are the only side in the competition who do not seem to care what happens in the Premiership. They are obviously concentrating on their European Challenge Cup quarter-final (against Castres on Sept 20) – and fingers crossed that goes ahead.
But that means they are quite prepared to completely rest their starters, pick a dirt-tracking team and sacrifice results in the league.
Players can be pulled up and dragged down. What has happened to Northampton Saints? They put out pretty much the strongest side they could have done against Bath and got hammered 18-3.
As the league takes shape, it appears obvious that Exeter are going to run away with it. They will get a home semi-final. And then is it three from five – maybe six if Saints put things right – for
They think that because they do one thing well, they do not want to do something else
the rest of the play-off contenders? Time is running out for teams to make a charge. You look at Gloucester and think: “Why the hell are you not in the mix?”
Over the course of a season, Exeter’s squad is miles stronger than anyone else’s. But I do think they could be beaten in a one-off game. Down the bottom, though, we are getting a taste of the potential pitfalls of a ring-fenced league. It would be difficult to hit a decent level of intensity when you cannot reach the top four.
Could the Leicester players give a monkey’s? They might say that the new coaching regime provides the motivation. If that is the case, why are they not playing some rugby? That brings us back to the start. Some midweek teams – the ones still in the title race – are playing well. That is because of the desire of the individuals there to put on a show.