Pro12: Autumn gold for some, gloom for others
AUTUMN has officially started, and throughout the Pro12 sides are seeing unbeaten records smashed like conkers that haven't been soaked for long enough in vinegar.
Just two sides, Glasgow Warriors and the Ospreys, have yet to be defeated in the league this season, with Munster and Leinster both slipping up last weekend.
There have been a number of results that can be identified as shocks even without the help of a seismologist, among them Zebre's 30-25 victory over the Blues at the Arms Park and the Dragons' 15-8 upset of last year's finalists Ulster. Further tremors have come with Treviso's win over Munster and the Dragons' beating of the Scarlets.
The slow reintegration of the Lions at certain clubs has undoubtedly left Leinster and Munster vulnerable, but credit should also be given to last year's two basement sides, the Dragons and Zebre, who have clearly made progress.
But the two pacesetters have started ominously well. Glasgow have won three out of three despite clashing with Ulster and Leinster already in the campaign — Ulster at Ravenhill.
And if two 5,000-plus crowds wouldn't exactly have treasurers or finance directors at every region or province turning cartwheels of delight, in a country that has proved stubbornly resistant to professional rugby's charms, where it is sometimes considered a good night if the cheerleaders turn up rather than phone in the cheers, such gates are classed as significant progress.
The Ospreys can also be pleased with their start.
They scored six tries against Edinburgh on a rousing night at the Liberty, but the most notable feature of their play this term has been their commitment to defence. They have been missing tackles — indeed, against Leinster they uncharacteristically fell off 28 — but it has been the sheer volume of hits that has impressed.
In the Leinster game, they ended up making 156 tackles, against Treviso 114 were put in, against Edinburgh 102.
Despite winning an abundance of possession against the Scots, they still swarmed all over them, with Sam Lewis leading the way, the flanker recovering from an early bump to once again frustrate the opposition with his sheer appetite for defensive duties.
He made 17 hits all told, bringing his haul to 45 in three games.
Lewis's strength is that he never goes missing in action. He can be relied on to make his tackles and cause a nuisance of himself at the breakdown in every game.
His displays have given Steve Tandy a headache in the run-up to Europe.
Justin Tipuric is a magnificent player, blessed with a multi-skilled game that can turn a good side into a very good one. He also has superb defence himself, allied to the creative qualities that help make him such a special No. 7. When Tipuric is at his best, the Ospreys appear to have 16 players on the field.
But Lewis has probably been the Ospreys' best player this season, so Tandy has a harder decision to make than many would appreciate.
The Ospreys' head coach would have been hugely encouraged by the way his Lions performed against Edinburgh, led by Alun Wyn Jones, whose inspiring captaincy must have impressed the watching Warren Gatland, while Ian Evans, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones also put in big shifts, with Tipuric chipping in as well, despite being yellow carded after coming on as a sub.
It is still early in the campaign and the Ospreys reckon there is scope for them to improve.
"I'd hope there's more to come," said assistant coach Gruff Rees.
"At half-time against Edinburgh we were really frustrated, because even though we'd had 66 per cent of territory and the lion's share of possession, there were still 11 turnovers in the first half.
"That wasn't good enough in terms of consolidating pressure for longer periods.
"That said, our set-piece game was good and there were different options taken and different variation that we haven't seen before. But we do strive for more and there were a couple of times when we were a bit static and didn't stretch Edinburgh as much as we could have."
The Scarlets needn't despair after their loss in Gwent to the Dragons.
They actually made eight clean breaks at Rodney Parade and left home defenders clutching thin air no fewer than 24 times.
One of Welsh rugby's form players, Liam Williams, had another strong game, making four clean breaks himself, missing no tackles and running out of defence quicker than a than a bishop fleeing an illegal rave that has attracted the attention of the local police.
Williams has long been known for his courage but he has plenty of skill as well and shone in a Scarlets side for whom Rob McCusker also worked hard.
The West Walians may wonder at the wisdom of playing so loosely in Gwent, though.
Really, the need was to play a territorial and pressure game, forcing the Dragons into errors and so winning scrums, the area where the Scarlets had a clear advantage.
But under Lyn Jones the Dragons' are surfing a wave of self-belief and they backed up their attacking intent with a hugely committed defensive show, with Lewis Evans advancing his claims for a Wales squad call with 24 tackles and a number of important turnovers.
Losing in Newport has left the Scarlets under a measure of pressure going up to Edinburgh this weekend.
Come unstuck and it will be three defeats in the first four matches — a not dissimilar start to the one that haunted the Ospreys throughout last year's campaign. Win and they will have momentum before the game with Glasgow in Llanelli the following weekend.
The Blues? After the catastrophic defeat by Zebre, they face an away trip to Leinster.
They need a result to ease the pressure on Phil Davies, but it says everything about where they stand that it would be a bigger shock for them to win in Dublin than it was for Zebre to prevail at the Arms Park.
For Davies, the old Green Day song comes to mind, not Boulevard of Broken Dreams but Wake Me Up When September Ends.
Others are whistling different tunes, but all will want to hold or find form with European rugby on the horizon.