Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Guinness toast

Raise a glass of stout, because the Premiership is back. After three weekends of games, things are looking feisty as always in the world of English domestic rugby, and it seems that if ever there were old certainties, they aren't so certain anymore.

Take defending champions Wasps losing all of their opening fixtures so far. Or Leicester's kicking; without their former dead-eye, Andy Goode, who left over the summer for Brive, new signing Toby Flood has worn the mantle uneasily, converting just 55% of his attempts at goal. His 11 successful kicks have, however, ensured three wins from three for the Tigers, and their early-season solidity is in marked contrast to last year's quixotic quest to retain the crown they won in 2007.

Gloucester's traditional fragility remains, a problem bemoaned by coach Dean Jones, but Northants, relegated with barely a whimper in 2007, have added the steel of Neil Best and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, and fought their way to two wins from three and fifth in the table. Throw into the pot the newly-minted ELVs, which Jones reckons have been applied differently in all three of his side's games thus far, Jonny Wilkinson playing in two consecutive games injury-free, and Ollie Barkley in a Gloucester shirt, and the Premiership almost begins to look like a kind of newfoundland.

Some things don't change, though. Wilkinson's kicking percentage is up at 100, for instance. Worcester, for all the hype surrounding Chris Latham's arrival, find themselves at the wrong end of the blender; while Sale, the club who looked most likely to vie with Wasps and Leicester for domestic supremacy when they claimed a well-deserved title in 2006, are motoring again. And then there are the hardy perennials, the autumn internationals, just over the horizon...

England will play Australia, South Africa and New Zealand on three consecutive weekends in November, and, after the disastrous tour to Kiwi in June, that's a pretty fearsome-looking triptych. Even with Wilkinson fit having undergone shoulder surgery over the summer, it would be great to throw that physical manifestation of game-breaking unpredictability, Danny Cipriani, into the fray against the southern giants. Let's hope his own recuperation from injury is going well.

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