Austin Healey Column
Chiefs for the chop
ESPN's Austin Healey
September 8, 2010
Bath's Matt Banahan stretches the Leeds defence during their clash on Sunday © Getty Images
What a great start to the season and what a difference a year makes.
The stattos among you may know that there were 15 tries scored on opening day last season while 27 were scored this past weekend and that in itself says a lot about the state of the game. It's great that we can already reflect on some outstanding attacking rugby which bodes well for the season ahead.
There were some notable performances - especially at Twickenham where we also kicked off ESPN's coverage - with London Irish playing some great rugby while both Wasps and Harlequins put some impressive stuff together. Having now watched all the other games, it is clear that Northampton will be strong once again but Leicester caught the eye too when they were chasing the game. But if I had to pick one standout performance it would have to be Bath, who looked exceptional in beating Leeds.
I don't think anyone will get overly carried away with their results be it a loss or even a win - especially the defending champions. The Tigers have lost a couple of their season openers in previous seasons and gone on to become champions and they will be determined to bounce back this weekend. As a result, I think Exeter are in for one almighty shock when they get to Welford Road. Leicester players do not take kindly to losing.
Likewise, Saracens will be keen to move on - starting with the game against Sale on Sunday. Brendan Venter's side played some good stuff against Irish and were treated a little harshly with the sin-binning of fly-half Alex Goode. It wasn't a yellow card but I don't think it had a direct correlation with them losing the game because Irish were just too strong in the second-half.
If I was a Saracens fan, the form of Goode would be a concern. I said in pre-season that I was worried how he would cope with the switch from fullback to fly-half and he did little to answer those doubts. He is a young guy with potentially a big future ahead of him but he didn't deliver on Saturday and in that scenario your team are always going to be in trouble. A lot is hanging on his shoulders and you can't win the Premiership without having a good fly-half.
Wasps' Riki Flutey had a more productive day at No.10 but I don't think he has the kicking game to become a world-class fly-half so why would you bother playing him there? When the games are open and the grounds are hard he's fantastic but when it gets wet, windy and cold you need your fly-half to keep your team moving forward and I don't think he's the man to ensure that. Wasps probably know that they have got Dave Walder in reserve and I think we'll see them adjust accordingly as the season progresses.
Exeter's Gareth Steenson had an excellent game and kicked the ball well both from the tee and when moving his side around the pitch but I think Gloucester should really have won that match with James Simpson-Daniel looking lively. Nick Easter also had a very good first game for Harlequins and Saracens' Schalk Brits was immense in the first half against London Irish but seemed to run out of steam after the break. In addition, Saints scrum-half Lee Dickson had a very good game and I think Alesana Tuilagi played pretty well for Leicester.
The pick of the bunch may have been Bath's Matt Banahan who stepped up to the challenge of playing in the centre and his team-mate Sam Vesty is also worth a mention. Right, I think I've covered every player in the Premiership so that should do it.
On a serious note, I really could see Banahan making a more permanent home at No.13 where his power and pace work really well. A guy of his strength is always going to break the gain line and he acts as a real spearhead in midfield. Defensively I'm not so sure of his credentials because he didn't really get tested in the Leeds game - that could be the one flaw to the plan because centre is a devilishly difficult position to defend in.
And what about our performance? I had a lot of fun this weekend and really enjoyed being back on the Premiership front line - especially with guys in fancy dress who had been drinking for six hours. Fortunately most of them behaved themselves - but that's what rugby is. It's people who are good-natured having a good laugh. It would be a nightmare if the football guys tried to do something similar - they would be getting beer thrown on them and all sorts.
It was an incredibly busy day and I considered having an abseil fitted so I could wing my way down from the gantry to pitchside but I decided that would be too slow and opted instead for a reverse bungee thing. If only. I was to-ing and fro-ing a bit which at a big stadiums like Twickenham is pretty difficult but hopefully as we travel around the country that part of my job will not be that tough - until we get to Wembley of course.
Austin reviews the opening Aviva Premiership action (UK only)%]
We tried to have a laugh as we brought you action and I hope viewers appreciate that. We are delivering a game and that is serious business but we are not taking ourselves too seriously. We want people to enjoy the coverage as if they were watching it in the pub with their mates and if there is a bit of banter flying around and the odd difference of opinion then great.
Talking of our on-air team, word has reached me that one reader compared us to that 1980s TV favourite the A-Team with yours truly taking on the role of Murdock. Now, I'm not so sure about that comparison as I see myself more as Hannibal because 'I love it when a plan comes together'. Ben Kay as BA is a little more believable but Durders as Face? That's just ridiculous. He's not good looking enough and far too old for the part.
There's little time to rest before the next round of matches are upon us with the ESPN cameras heading to Welford Road and then Vicarage Road this weekend but first up for me is Family Fortunes on Wednesday. Don't ask me who I'm playing against because I have no idea - I only just about know the people in my team.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby