The importance of a fast start in the title race

Paul Eddison
27 September 2019

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According to the cliché a rugby season is a marathon not a sprint, but if recent seasons are anything to go by, a fast start is crucial to a team’s hopes.

Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets may be the exception that proves the rule, but generally teams who end up champions have got off to a flyer.

Of the last five Guinness PRO14 champions, only the Scarlets did not win their opening match of the campaign, and they were also the only side not to come away with three wins from their first four matches.

Not all wins are created equal of course – who can forget Leinster’s last-gasp success to open the season in Cardiff a year ago?

That was a crucial victory that set them on course to cruise to top spot in Conference B and eventually win the title against Glasgow Warriors at Celtic Park.

The previous season it was again in Wales, this time in Newport, that Leinster made a winning start to their campaign, while Connacht and Glasgow both flew out of the blocks on their way to the title in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

The Scarlets, on the other hand, famously lost their first three matches in the year they won the title, but were able to turn things around from that point onwards, losing just twice the rest of the way.

Even so, they still had to do something unprecedented in winning an away semi-final, becoming the first team to do so despite playing more than half the game with 14 men.

The Scarlets are the only recent champion to have had a worse win/loss percentage in their first four games than in the regular season as a whole which would tend to indicate that a strong start to the campaign can offer a buffer to teams later in the campaign.

That is particularly true of Connacht, who are especially relevant this season, having won the title in the last World Cup year.

On that occasion, Pat Lam’s team surprised everyone with their form to start the campaign, taking 16 points from a possible 20 to start the season.

In fact by the time December rolled around they had lost just once, a fact that was crucial when they went on a four-game losing streak.

In most seasons, a run like that might have torpedoed Connacht’s season, but they had built up enough of a margin for error that they were able to ride out those losses and bounce back, eventually winning the title in Edinburgh.

So with all that in mind, it is certainly worth keeping a close eye on what happens on the opening weekend of action.

Of course the Scarlets have shown that a defeat does not mean your hopes of winning it all come the end of the season are over.

But it may just be that an opening day win is a greater indicator of future success than most would have imagined.

With both of last year’s champions on the road this weekend, there is just a little added pressure to get off the mark with a win.

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