6 Things We Learned in the Aviva Premiership This Weekend
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Fans of domestic rugby in England were treated to a cracking opening round of the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership that included an abundance of tries, one particularly surprising result and some typically inclement weather.
With national coaches looking to nail down their squads two years out from the 2015 World Cup, there is much to play for this season beyond the usual club demands.
Newcastle were given a stark reminder of the difference between the top flight and the Championship on their debut back in the Premiership, losing convincingly at home to Bath, while Sale showed they will be a handful by winning away at Gloucester.
There were no surprises as Saracens, Northampton and Leicester started their campaigns with impressive wins over London Irish, Exeter and Worcester respectively.
As for Harlequins, it came down to a matter of inches as Andy Goode's last-minute touchline conversion rebounded off the post to hand them victory in the London derby with Wasps.
We look at six things we learned from the opening weekend of the Aviva Premiership.
Newcastle Face a Long and Hard Season
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It almost goes without saying that the promoted team's primary focus in their first season back in the top flight is survival.
Consolidation is the name of the game, and the only way a promoted club can consolidate is by avoiding the drop after one season back.
Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards knows more than most about building success after taking a team back into the Premiership, and his aim this season will be to replicate what he did with Harlequins a few years ago.
But a 21-0 reversal to Bath on a Friday night at Kingston Park is not what he was hoping for. Yes, the weather was awful, and yes Bath fly-half George Ford played the conditions outstandingly well, but there is no denying the Falcons were out-muscled up front.
Bath have plenty of grunt in their forwards, but so do many other Premiership packs, and Newcastle will learn soon whether they are too lightweight to survive.
Front-Row Departures Will Not Affect Northampton
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Losing props of the quality of Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati at the same time would put a dent in any team's title ambitions.
Northampton said farewell to the France-bound pair over the summer but brought in England international Alex Corbisiero soon after the duo had boarded the Eurostar to Paris.
Judging by the Saints' pack's dominant display in the comfortable 38-11 victory over Exeter, Northampton will not be too affected by the changes up front.
Corbisiero was a star for the British and Irish Lions over the summer and, along with England Saxons prop Tom Mercey, is more than capable of leading the Saints' front-row challenge this season.
Sale Will Cause More Upsets
No one gave last season's strugglers Sale a chance in their opener at Gloucester, a club brimming with optimism for the season ahead.
But any side with a front row as solid as the Sharks' and a points machine as proven as Nick Macleod will always have a chance, as they showed by silencing the Shed with a surprise 22-16 win.
Sale dug themselves into a hole last season that they did well to get out of, and if they can maintain a steady start this campaign their confidence will grow.
Sharks director of rugby Steve Diamond is a canny operator and likes nothing more than to bloody the noses of bigger clubs.
Dylan Hartley Wants to Make Up for His Quiet Summer
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Hooker Dylan Hartley has only himself to blame for a summer free from rugby. His sending off in the final of the Premiership cost him his spot on the Lions tour, where he likely would have excelled and made the Test team.
Poor discipline cost the fiery Northampton hooker his chance to be part of Lions history and, judging from his performance and appearance in the Saints' victory over Exeter, he is desperate to make up for lost time.
Hartley looked as trim and fit as he has for a long while, and it showed as he took his chance well to score the Saints' opening try.
With incumbent England hooker Ben Youngs likely to feel the draining effects of a long summer with the Lions, look out for Hartley to establish himself as the first choice ahead of the autumn internationals.
So Far so Good for the New Scrum Laws
Despite some recent bleating from one or two quarters about changes to the scrum, overall the new engagement regulations appear to have gone well on the first weekend.
Players, coaches and referees need to buy into the reasons for change—player safety and to end the countless boring resets that blighted of the game—and not complain that it requires them to adapt.
Proper scrums and proper hooking is a fundamental component of rugby union and they owe to the game as a whole—and to not just think of their individual and club needs—to embrace it.
Scrum doyenne Brian Moore reported favorably on the evidence of recent changes in his column in the Daily Telegraph:
To take two of the best cases, the All Blacks and Saracens used a quick strike to set their No 8 free to make rapid yards and fashioned strike runs from backs which were effective. The alleged and bogus claims that hooking is unsafe were incontrovertibly proved false and a succession of hookers carried out this lost art without any difficulty.
Importantly, this approach saw the backs coming into the equation as a result of this restart for the first time in many seasons and they must be pleased not to have to be spectators for what was starting to be up to a quarter of every game.
Brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola Will Take Some Stopping
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Although Billy Vunipola, the younger of the two brothers, was playing out of position at No. 6 against London Irish, the new signing had an impressive debut for Saracens.
Mako Vunipola's 52nd-minute arrival as a replacement was also effective as he crashed over for Sarries' third try.
Together, the Vunipola brothers make a fearsome pair, and their ability to make the hard yards will be a feature of Saracens' play this season.
Both are big men—Billy is 126kg and Mako a staggering 130kg—but they are both extremely mobile and have good hands. Aged just 20 and 21 respectively, there is little doubt they will be stars for both Saracens and England for many years to come.