We are now a good way into the 2021/2022 English Premiership season, and it seems like a good moment to step back and look at the league as a whole, picking out those teams who have started well, those who have struggled, and those who have so far surprised us, either in a good or bad way. In this tactical analysis, we will name two teams for each of those categories, and will give some analysis of their performances and tactics so far.
Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears both got off to bad starts this season, and took longer to establish themselves than most expected. However, that has allowed the returning Saracens to really shine, demonstrating the quality they possess, and their only loss so far has come at Welford Road, when a late penalty try handed league leaders Leicester Tigers the win at the death. Their re-establishment as a top flight superpower has been undoubtedly aided by them keeping most of the squad from their last Premiership campaign together, so new partnerships have not had to be formed on the whole.
On the pitch, they have shown a good level of teamwork, which has led to them creating many attacking opportunities and scoring plenty of points during games. Some fans argue that maintaining a strong defence is what wins titles, and that is true to an extent, as Saracens have only conceded 62 points in four games so far. However, their attack has been equally impressive, with huge wins over Bristol and Bath being the result of their offensive play and their ability to put pressure on their opponents. Their current total of 146 points scored in the league is second only to Leicester’s 149, which shows that they have to be considered as title contenders once again.
Newcastle are one of those teams who turn up to every game, but never take the points that their performances merit, meaning that they linger nearer the bottom of the league throughout most campaigns. However, they have looked more dangerous this season, with winger Adam Radwan’s pace and trickery catching out several teams already, earning him a call-up to Eddie Jones’ England squad for the upcoming Autumn Internationals. The Falcons have won three of their five games this season, defeating Wasps and Bristol at home, whilst they were also victorious at The Rec against struggling Bath. Those are not easy teams to beat, which again shows the confidence and quality that Newcastle are playing with this season.
They don’t score many points during games, but don’t concede many either, and that is the key to their good form. At time of writing, they lie sixth in the table, but have had to get those results without their influential centre partnership of Luther Burrell and Argentina international Matias Orlando, both of whom proved essential to their all-round play last season. They don’t have a lot of star names in the squad, which makes their start even more impressive, and, when their key players are back and playing regularly, they could be even stronger and really challenge for a Champions Cup place.
Bath finished last season just outside the playoff places, but have really struggled to get going so far in this campaign. They have not won a game yet, and have had some bad losses, including the 71-17 home mauling by Saracens just last weekend. It should be remembered that they have had a lot of injury problems, with plenty of key players not yet featuring, whilst England back Anthony Watson ruptured his ACL against Saracens and is set for an extended period on the sidelines. What Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper will hope is that Bath find some form and begin to climb the table once a few of the players currently out are back in the XV.
Bath’s results have been disappointing, but their performances have not been too bad on average. Whilst no-one would disagree that Saracens cut through them too easily, Bath have shown some positive signs, with their passing speed increased this season, whilst the creativity of players like centre Max Ojomoh has allowed them to pose a consistent attacking threat. In the West Country derby against Bristol, they were the better side in the first half, but couldn’t keep Bristol out as the Bears improved after the break. If they can turn one of these performances into a win, that could help them to regain their confidence, which could be all they need to spark into life.
It seems harsh to put Worcester Warriors into this category, as they were the busiest club over the summer in terms of incoming players, with 12 new additions, and, as such, they need time to gel together. However, time is something no-one has in the Premiership, and Worcester have not really got going yet.
They have posed more of a threat in attack, with Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe their key signing in this area, but their defending still needs a lot of work. They can defend well in open spaces when they have time to organise themselves, but have been unable so far to stop lineout drives and other attacking moves from shorter distances, which was exposed badly in their last two games, as Leicester and Exeter both rely on rolling mauls as a key part of their tactics. The Warriors have conceded the most points in the league so far, with 180 shipped in total across their five games (an average of 36 per game), so this is clearly an area that still needs improving.
In attack, they have scored highly in games, with 36 in their favour against London Irish on the opening weekend, their only win so far, along with 29 against defending champions Harlequins and 23 at home to Gloucester, so there is potential for them to start winning games once they can improve at the back. However, the hard truth is that Leicester, Newcastle and Gloucester, who have been Worcester’s main rivals at the foot of the table in recent seasons, have all shown definite signs of improvement, and the Warriors’ lack of progress in terms of results and league positioning has been exposed as a result.
Whilst it has been obvious to all that Leicester Tigers have been improving in the Premiership over the last few campaigns, not many would have expected them to be top of the table and have five wins from five at the beginning of this season. However, that is exactly what has happened, and it has almost been a breath of fresh air to see them at English rugby’s summit again.
What really demonstrates the level of their improvement is that they had to play their first four games without their Rugby Championship stars, including Argentina duo Julian Montoya and Matias Moroni and South Africa internationals Jasper Wiese and new signing Marco van Staden. Montoya was a crucial addition last season, with his power in rolling mauls giving Leicester a threat at lineouts, whilst Wiese is a back rower who drives through opposing defences and gains plenty of ground for his team.
However, what has changed over the summer is their defence, as this has been the one area where they have previously been unconvincing. Rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield was appointed as their new defence coach over the summer, and has so far been the signing of the season, as the Tigers have only conceded 76 points this season, the third-lowest in the league, and this newfound defensive strength married to a quick attacking unit and good pressing has made Leicester genuine title contenders once again.
Arguably the biggest surprise this season has been the poor form of Bristol Bears. Having been one of the giants of English rugby over recent campaigns, they have struggled to get going so far, with some bad results and performances indicating how far they have fallen.
It is not like they have changed a lot of their team around either, with the only major departures being former Tonga captain Siale Piutau and the return to parent club Saracens of England duo Ben Earl and Max Malins. However, the squad have lost their competitiveness and belief, with their opening weekend loss to Saracens providing many questions which they have yet to answer. Across the board, they have not looked themselves, and other teams have taken advantage of that to play through them, finding their weaknesses and punishing their mistakes.
They only scored 17 points in their opening two matches, which showed that something was missing. Whilst they did well to come back and win the West Country derby against Bath, they haven’t really kicked on from there, and further losses at Harlequins and Newcastle, the latter of which was a game they never got into, have cemented their place in the bottom two. They do have some key injuries, such as influential Fiji back Semi Radradra, but Director of Rugby Pat Lam must be wondering what has happened to his team over the summer, and they need to get another win on the board sooner rather than later, as the playoffs already look to be a tough ask for them this season, given the form of those above them.