Premiership Rugby

Premiership Preview: Teams Eye Redemption Before European Rugby Kickoff

Premiership Preview: Teams Eye Redemption Before European Rugby Kickoff

Explore the pivotal matchups, struggles and key players, as English rugby gears up for the final domestic round before the European competitions begin.

Dec 1, 2023
Premiership Preview: Teams Eye Redemption Before European Rugby Kickoff

Round 8 of the Premiership will be the final weekend of English domestic action, before European rugby gets underway.

As a result, teams are aiming to end things on a high, so they head into the Champions Cup or Challenge Cup, satisfied with where they sit in the table.

Three sides, in particular, will be attempting to end a truly disastrous run of form, while elsewhere, two international fly-halves face off with the England No. 10 shirt on the line.

Here, we take a closer look at the games, players and storylines for this weekend. 

Match Of The Week

Sometimes, the game of the weekend is not between two heavyweights. Sometimes, the greatest jeopardy comes to those struggling the most.

That’s precisely why the game to watch this weekend is the West Country derby between Bristol and Gloucester, both of which are languishing near the bottom of the table.

A derby always is a fiery affair, but the fact that both clubs have two wins out of seven and are separated by a single point in the table means this match simply means more.

Neither side wants to be there, nor should they be there, given the star names littered throughout both squads. And yet both have suffered excruciating dips in form.

Bristol started the season brightly, beating the Leicester Tigers at home. However, they haven’t won at Ashton Gate since then and are riding a five-game losing streak.

Remarkably, Gloucester has befallen almost exactly the same fate – winning its opening game of the season at Kingsholm, but not winning there since. They’ve lost five games on the trot, and to make things even worse, they have only won five of their last 22 matches.

That’s exactly the same run of form as the bottom-of-the-table Newcastle Falcons.

So the message is clear - both teams must win. Anything else invariably will lead to widespread alarm, which could result in head coaches Pat Lam and George Skivington facing the axe.

Storyline To Watch

On Wednesday, it was revealed Owen Farrell is taking an indefinite break from international rugby, sighting his and his family’s mental well-being as the primary reason for the decision.

For years, Farrell has endured torrents of abuse, not just from opposition fans, but English fans as well. 

It’s hard to think of another professional player who’s faced so much vitriolic hatred, and yet, through it all, the fly-half has remained at the pinnacle of the sport, most recently helping lead England to a World Cup semifinal.

It’s a sad state of affairs which shows the ongoing abuse players unduly face – they’re humans, after all, and should be treated like any other.

Farrell will be unavailable for selection for the 2024 Six Nations as he focuses entirely upon playing for Saracens.

His club fully supported the move, releasing the following statement: β€œAs always, Owen will have the full support of everyone at the club.”

Saracens fans will have the opportunity to show their solidarity and support for their captain Saturday when the north London club welcomes the Northampton Saints to the StoneX.

Hopefully, the occasion will show Farrell there are plenty of rugby fans who still value his contributions.

Player To Watch

For the second week in a row, a Friday night fixture will see two international-caliber No. 10s go head to head, as Marcus Smith lines up opposite George Ford.

The clash between Harlequins and Sale Sharks promises a lot, with both sides eyeing a title charge at the latter end of the season.

However, the limelight will be shining brightest on Smith. Everyone knows the skill the young fly-half possesses in attack.

Defenses rightly give him his due respect, often rushing up off the line to limit his thinking time. That respect should be worn as a badge of honor, showing the degree to which Smith unnerves opposition.

But equally, that respect is not limitless. 

One of the reasons Smith has struggled to make the England No. 10 shirt his own is because of his game management and poise under pressure. While Farrell and Ford play the game like master tacticians, choosing the right decisions ahead of the flashiest options, Smith tends to use one gear - full throttle.

On Friday, he has the chance to prove his aggressive attacking style is better than Ford’s.

Last week, the Sale Sharks managed to buckle Bath by only scoring 12 points, with the crucial kicks coming from Ford’s boot. In that match, Sale managed to pacify the Bath attack, and Ford did the rest.

Smith of course, will bank on being able to breach the Sharks stronghold, but if his attack falls flat, he may have to change gear and travel a lesser-trodden avenue.

And, with Farrell now taking a break from international duty, that England 10 jersey is there for the taking.