It was a big weekend in European rugby as Wasps continued their fine form in Coventry, Saracens trialled a new concussion programme and Clermont Auvergne returned to the summit of the Top 14. Here are five things we learned from the action.
Wasps might just be creating a lasting buzz in Coventry
The gate for Wasps’ 41-16 demolition of Sale may have been considerably smaller than for their first game in Coventry, but signs are the club are beginning to make waves in their new home.
Given the publicity generated by their move to the Ricoh Arena, Sunday’s attendance was always going to be more instructive than that against London Irish a fortnight ago.
And that 15,343 turned up should be highly encouraging for the Wasps hierarchy, especially as that is around 10,000 more than they were getting at Adams Park.
Victory on the pitch was Wasps’ third in a row and lifted them into the top four, form that should ensure those new fans keep coming back, and.
In two games at the Ricoh Arena Dai Young’s men have scored 89 points. Continue at that pace and the stadium will be full week in, week out.
Saracens are taking issue of concussion extremely seriously
In a bid to safeguard their players from the effects of concussion, Saracens have adopted technology used in the NFL to monitor knocks they may suffer on the field of play.
The club’s backs and back-row forwards donned the equipment – effectively sensors tapped to the back of their ears – for the first time during their 22-6 win over London Irish at Allianz Park.
It is very much early days for the programme, with data collected at the end of the game, but it is hoped that the sensors will produce real-time data by the end of the season, allowing medical staff to make more informed decisions on whether players can continue.
Edward Griffiths, chief executive, said: “We don’t want to meet our players in 20 or 25 years’ time, to find them suffering from dementia or any similar condition, and to reflect we suspected something was going on but we didn’t really know. We want to know.”
Tuilagi’s injury problems open Six Nations door for Burrell
Speaking after Leicester secured a highly impressive 17-8 victory over Bath, Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill confirmed that Manu Tuilagi would not be fit for the start of the Six Nations.
Tuilagi has been out since October with a groin strain, and left a glaring hole in Stuart Lancaster’s plans during the autumn internationals.
Bath’s aspirations at Welford Road, meanwhile, were hindered as their own England midfielder, Kyle Eastmond, limped off early while Sam Burgess struggled to assert himself on proceedings.
With England kicking off their campaign against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on February 6, Lancaster may well decide to take a safety first approach.
The England coach will hope Brad Barritt recovers from his own injury troubles in time, but Northampton centre Luther Burrell continues to put himself in the frame.
Burrell turned in a try-scoring performance on Friday night as Saints beat Newcastle 39-31 on Friday night and would certainly bring physicality to the England back line.
Pro12 is going to go down to the wire
The first half of the season may have been dominated by Glasgow and the Ospreys but heading into the new year there are still at least five teams with designs on the Pro12 title.
Bar Treviso, last weekend saw no team who had been victorious in the previous round win again as the sides at the top concertinaed further.
Five points separate the top five teams with 10 games to go, while Connacht are just three further back and Scarlets within four of the Irish province.
The Scarlets enjoyed an encouraging win over the Ospreys on Saturday that keeps their hopes of a top four finish alive, something captain Scott Williams is adamant they can achieve.
If they are to do so they will need Williams and Bath-bound fly-half Rhys Priestland to display the kind of form that saw them carve open the Ospreys defence at the Parc y Scarlets.
Regardless of whether they can maintain do that, the second half of the Pro12 promises to be one to keep an eye on.
Clermont coming to the boil at the right time in France
— ASM Rugby (@ASMOfficiel) January 4, 2015
2010 Top 14 champions Clermont Auvergne returned to the Top 14 summit for the first time since August thanks to a comfortable win over Toulouse at home.
In truth it was a result that was in little doubt considering the visitors have not won in Clermont-Ferrand since 2002. Yet it could yet have great significance as it took the hosts back to the top of the table, as both Toulon and Stade Francais lost.
Clermont’s victory was powered by their French international three-quarters, as Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana each scored tries, while No10 Camille Lopez kicked 14 points.
That form should bode well not only for Clermont, but also Les Bleus as they look to make an impression on the Six Nations next month.
Referees are increasingly getting a hard time from both players and fans, so it is refreshing to hear them giving a bit back.
Welsh referee Nigel Owens recently told Harlequins hooker Dave Ward “I’m straighter” than one feed into a scrum, and his country Ian Davies also got in on the act.
Having awarded a penalty against a sheepish Adam Jones, the ref urged the Cardiff Blues prop not to give him “those puppy dog eyes”. This could turn into a competition.
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With the World Cup just months away, rugby enthusiasts have a lot to look forward to, between the return of Sam Burgess to union, the elusive 20-year-old Handre Pollard continuing to pull the strings for South Africa, and the Wallabies looking to rediscover their spring under Michael Chieka.
Here are our ten things to expect in the coming season:
The biggest World Cup yet
It is impossible to look ahead to the new year without mentioning the upcoming World Cup in England, and it promises to be a tournament to remember.
On the pitch, several sides are shaping up nicely to give defending champions New Zealand a run for their money. Off it, the hosts have enlisted the brains behind the successful London Olympic and Paralympic Games to ensure it goes off with a bang.
Tickets have been snapped up like never before, justifying the organisers’ decision to hold many of the games in football stadia. Just don’t be surprised to see some empty seats, with the threat from touts looming large.
Burgess hysteria to reach new heights
Since switching codes to join Bath, Sam Burgess’ every move has been monitored, replayed and analysed with the hope that he can make an impact on the World Cup.
Given his club and country are split on where the former rugby league man will end up in the 15-man code, it is unlikely that he will have sufficiently acclimatised to be included for England during the Six Nations.
That hasn’t stopped the hysteria, though, with Burgess’ first try in union generating a raft of coverage even though it was scored in an ‘A’ team game.
Expect that to increase as the quadrennial tournament approaches.
Northern hemisphere sides to suffer glorious failure at World Cup
There is a strong chance that a side from the northern hemisphere will reach the World Cup. The draw has been fairly kind, with either France or Ireland likely to meet one of Australia, England or Wales at the semi-final stage.
Yet with England struggling to discover a formula in their back-line to match up to their forward dominance, France at their inconsistent best, Ireland fairly reactionary and Wales still lacking a Plan B, it would still be a surprise if any of them won it.
Ireland look best placed to challenge, but South Africa will be a whole different proposition next autumn, while New Zealand will be highly motivated to send Richie McCaw et al off with the Web Ellis Cup still in their luggage hold.
Slade to knock Farrell further down England pecking order
Exeter continue to upset the big boys in England, currently sitting fourth in the Premiership, and one of the major factors in their success this season has been Henry Slade.
The 21-year-old centre is a supremely talented footballer, blessed with a full range of skills and an intuitive rugby brain. Aggressive in defence, with an eye for a gap and an accomplished kicking game, Slade is exactly what his country have been crying out for in midfield.
Stuart Lancaster must look at the youngster in the Six Nations, although with George Ford impressing at No10 that would mean diminishing Owen Farrell’s role further.
French club rugby to eat itself
The end of year migration of talent from the southern to northern hemisphere has already begun with Dan Carter, James Horwill and Ma’a Nonu agreeing moves to Europe post World Cup.
Racing Metro have made Carter the first £1,000,000 rugby player, handing him a contract worth more than double his predecessor, Jonathan Sexton.
Given Sexton was the highest paid player in the Top 14 when he moved to Paris just 18 months ago, it is clear that clubs could struggle to keep up as wages soar.
The Parisian clubs, Clermont and Toulon have an unfair advantage on the rest in this respect, but the money spent on foreign talent could yet hinder France in the autumn.
Gatland to become increasingly prickly with the media
When Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster were handed long-term contracts by Wales and England respectively it looked like astute planning.
Yet both have come under scrutiny since then, with Gatland and his staff growing increasingly irritated by suggestions their team don’t know how to play against the big three.
Wales’ tight win over South Africa should give them confidence, but given they are winless against Pool A opponents Australia in their last 10 meetings the questions will only intensify.
Just don’t expect the Wales management’s reaction to them to get any rosier.
Pollard to mature and give Springboks attacking edge
Like the Springboks in general, fly-half Handre Pollard endured a mixed autumn, which came at the end of an exhausting year.
It was a 12 months, though, in which the 20-year-old proved himself to be a potentially devastating player at international level.
The experience of Frans Steyn should serve as a warning to South Africa’s latest prodigy, but if the Springboks are to make a dent at the World Cup then they will need the young playmaker to be fit and firing.
Henshaw to fill void left by O’Driscoll in Ireland
With Australian pressure mounting and Ireland retreating towards their own line with time running out at the Aviva Stadium in November came a moment of rare maturity.
The hosts were clinging onto victory when the ball found its way to their 21-year-old centre, but with a drop of the shoulder and a booming 40-yard kick up field Robbie Henshaw averted trouble and assured victory was theirs.
Henshaw is just at the beginning of his career, and has a long way to go to emulate the achievements of Brian O’Driscoll in a green shirt. But it would seem he has the temperament to take on the challenge.
Referees to continue to struggle at scrum time
It is a sad indictment of the game, especially in the northern hemisphere, that the majority of scrums end not with the ball in the hands of the scrum half, but with the ref blowing his whistle.
New laws and calls from the officials were designed to help improve this area of the game, but while the rule changes have limited the effectiveness of some high-profile props, they have done nothing to clean up the set piece.
Teams in Europe are targeting the scrum as a vehicle for three points like never before, and this is something that needs to be looked at. It is an emotive issue though and little will change, in 2015 at least.
Wallabies to rediscover their spring under Cheika
Results may not have been quite what the Wallabies wanted this autumn but there were definitely signs that Michael Cheika’s message was beginning to take hold.
The former Leinster and Waratahs coach now has an extended break from the international game to plot for the World Cup, and the acid test will come in an abbreviated Rugby Championship.
With Will Genia, James Horwill and potentially several other players heading to Europe after the autumn showpiece, this could be their last chance to make an impression on the biggest stage.
Cheika is the ideal person to ensure they reach England in the right shape.
Code-swapping star Sonny Bill Williams and Wallaby Quade Cooper will headline a 'fight night' in Australia next month in a line-up that also includes rugby league player Paul Gallen.
Williams, who returned to the All Blacks this year after a two-year stint with National Rugby League's Sydney Roosters, will take on American Chauncy Welliver in the January 31 event in Sydney.
In his last fight in February, Williams won a 10-round heavyweight bout against veteran South African Frans Botha.
The former World Cup-winning All Black star, in only his sixth professional fight, won the points on all three of the ringside judges' cards against the vastly experienced but ageing South African.
Cooper's opponent is as yet unnamed, but the fly-half had an impressive fourth round knockout win in his second professional fight in January. The 26-year-old floored former cage fighter Warren "The Fortress" Tresidder, 40, to keep his win record intact.
Cooper welcomed the Australian Rugby Union's approval for the off-season fight, saying he believed boxing kept him fit and as competitive as possible.
"Every player talks about ways of getting extra percentages — whether it be half a percent, one percent or two percent, and I think boxing is my edge," he said.
Williams said he had also sought permission from All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "The major concern for myself was getting his approval," Williams said. "He said that as long as I don't get knocked out, he's happy with it. So hopefully that's the plan." Cronulla Sharks player Gallen's opponent has not yet been named.