It felt like the start of the Premiership season proper – across England this weekend came a sprinkling of Rugby World Cup stars, striding their way back into club action after weeks away on their international adventures. For Sale, George Ford invoked the spirit of Marseille by dropping the Sharks to victory at Bristol, Theo Dan and the rest of a largely second-string Saracens bounced and bopped to a heavy win over Newcastle, and Finn Russell pulled Gloucester’s strings as Bath silenced Kingsholm. The financial wellbeing of the league is an ongoing concern but on the pitch the English top flight appears in reasonably rude health.
If there is a sense that the season is still in the feeling out stage, there is no time to dally in a condensed Premiership. Already more than a quarter of the season has gone, the reduction from 13 teams to 10 in the last year or so reducing the Premiership from 24 match rounds to 18. A slow start, as experienced by Leicester, can leave the gap to the top four opening wider and wider – no wonder, then, that Tigers coach Dan McKellar termed next week’s derby clash with Northampton as “must win” after his side suffered a fourth defeat in five games.
“The season is very short given, unfortunately, how many teams have gone,” scrum half Ben Youngs, one of McKellar’s returnees, said after losing to Harlequins. “But momentum can change very quickly. The league is unbelievably competitive so teams will knock off each other.”
Top of the pile after that victory at Welford Road are Harlequins, gutsing it out late on as darkness fell. Where in the past it has felt like the Londoners have been reliant on stars, their fast start is emblematic of a deeper squad than previous years – the returning Danny Care and Andre Esterhuizen were only required to close things out off the bench on Saturday, with Will Porter and Lennox Anyanwu impressive in their stead at scrum half and inside centre respectively.
The win at Leicester evidenced an evolution in Harlequins’ game. While it was their ability to play wide that took them to a Premiership triumph in 2021, Quins have sometimes struggled to edge arm-wrestles since. Summer coaching changes have brought back a more collaborative approach, with Nick Evans, Billy Millard, Jerry Flannery and Danny Wilson all playing key roles in guiding a player-led environment. Recognising a need to add grit to their glamour, the coaching staff have been encouraged by the foundations laid across the first month of the season. This four-point victory featured a number of close-range scores.
“The teams that win World Cups and win championships have the ability to change the style of their game,” attack coach Evans explained afterwards. “We are always going to have our identity, but we also need to evolve and be able to stick in games like that. We stuck in there and played the game we needed to play towards the end.”
Back to catalyse that evolution is Marcus Smith, slipping comfortably back in to a familiar fly half role on Saturday after spending almost the entirety of England’s World Cup at full-back. While there is no doubt that it is Smith’s spark and spunk that makes him such an exciting talent, the win at Leicester also evidenced his ability to manage a close contest, with the young playmaker controlling affairs in the final 15 minutes superbly.
“We didn’t want to thrust too much on him,” Evans, part of Steve Borthwick’s staff during the Six Nations earlier this year, said. “He thrives and always wants information, but it was important he came back and fit back in. It was just about giving him a little bit of a break to go out there and be himself. He made impacts in the game that gave us opportunities to win it. It was great to see him back in a Quins shirt attacking the way he does and then game managing the way he does.”
Smith’s future at international level is no more certain than before the World Cup, with Ford and Owen Farrell equally coming back to their clubs in fine form. Farrell was rested from Saracens’ win at Kingston Park but will in all likelihood be Smith’s opposite number at the Stoop on Saturday on the Premiership’s “Derby Weekend”.
But it was intriguing to see Smith spend the final seven minutes at Welford Road at full-back, rediscovering a role in which he thrived at times for England in France. With Welshman Jarrod Evans a second international-calibre fly half on the payroll, former All Black fly half Evans admitted that Smith could wear 15 for his club at some point this season – but don’t expect a Beauden Barrett-esque switch to the backfield on a more permanent basis.
“We’ve got two quality tens now,” the Kiwi coach stressed. “It’s an option. Jarrod Evans has done extremely well while Marcus has been away. But Marcus is Marcus. He’s a big figure in our attack and a big figure in our team.
“He came back from the World Cup having learned a lot around that 15 position and knowing where the space is, understanding the influence that you can have on the inside from being out there. He’s imparted that knowledge on to the guys in the back three having had that experience. We’ll assess game by game and if that is needed, it’s an option for us that we can have up our sleeve.”