As we look ahead to the business end of the domestic season, Stuart Jones looks back on the action so far and shares his predictions for 2011.
The year 2010 will go down as one to remember for those associated with the Exeter Chiefs. As low as 4/7 with the bookies to make a quick return to the Championship, Rob Baxter’s men wasted no time in silencing their doubters. West Country rivals Gloucester left Sandy Park without a single point on day one of the season and that form has since proved to be no flash in the pan. The Chiefs are currently sitting one place above Bath in eighth and they should be safe as far as relegation goes.
Early pacesetters Northampton dropped to second in the league after suffering a shock home defeat at the hands of Quins last weekend, though alarm bells won’t be ringing at Franklin’s Gardens just yet, with the Saints still having two games in hand over the leaders Leicester. Northampton somewhat surprisingly parted company with Scottish International Euan Murray in December, and whilst Jim Mallinder has moved swiftly to capture the services of Ben Prescott, the absence of Murray could leave the pack slightly lacking in depth, meaning the fitness of the outstanding Soane Tonga’uiha is even more crucial to their title aspirations.
Leicester usually come good around the turn of the year; their improvement coinciding with the return of their vast number of internationals, and this year looks like proving no exception. Richard Cockerill has the Tigers playing a brand of rugby that isn’t totally in keeping with their tradition, 348 points and 5 try bonus points in just 12 games a stark contrast to the more conservative style of play we used to know and love. The deciding factor in the race for the regular season could well be the sheer strength in depth the Tigers possess. They have had to do it the hard way so far with the likes of Parling, Flood, Hipkiss and Skivington all missing for large chunks of the season and they look better equipped to me than Saints to cope with the upcoming International period.
Saracens and London Irish are two teams struggling to recapture their early season form, with the latter enduring a particularly torrid time of things at present. Toby Booth’s side slumped to their eighth successive defeat when beaten at home by Bath and it’s hard to know what’s going wrong with a side that looked so good in the early rounds. They are playing with very little cohesion and with Booth now persevering with Chris Malone at 10, it’s difficult to see things getting much better in the short term.
Despite sitting in third, Saracens have made more headlines off the field than on it, with the infamous Brendan Venter interview and the signing of Gavin Henson lapped up by the media. The injuries to Derick Hougaard, Adam Powell and Kameli Ratevou have left Sarries drastically short of options in the 10 and 13 positions and that has had a major impact on their form. On the plus side, they are at least unlikely to have the same distractions in Europe as their two nearest rivals.
Wasps continue to go about their business without doing anything exceptional and have given themselves every chance of making the play-offs. Reacquainting Mark Van Gisbergen with a tackle bag is paying its dividends, whilst the Wasps’ management finally recognising Ben Jacobs as the best outside back at the club can only be viewed as a positive.
Similar applies to Harlequins who, after a slow start to this season, have quickly made up ground into sixth. Conor O’Shea has benefited from being able to pick a settled side so far, with Nick Evans pulling the strings in the fly-half slot behind a back-row to rival any in the league. Injuries will prove crucial to their chances of making the top four.
After a slow start, Gloucester remain in contention, but for me have something of a mountain to climb if they are to have any say on who makes the top four. A totally inept performance (trust me, I was unfortunate enough to be there) against bottom of the league Leeds on New Year’s Day doing their chances no favours whatsoever ahead of a tough run of fixtures.
Steve Meehan fails to convince as coach of Bath, but his team still has a good chance of filling the final play-off berth. The return of Butch James can only help their cause and it wasn’t until the pitches began to dry out that they hit top form last year, finishing the season as the form team in the competition and not far off shocking Leicester in the semi-finals.
As far as the relegation battle is concerned, Sale put some daylight between themselves and the bottom pair with a much-needed win against Saracens and should do enough to stay up. Leeds gave their chances a massive boost with that win against Gloucester and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the excellent Hendrie Fourie and Marco Wentzel help the Yorkshire side stay up at the expense of Newcastle.
End of Season Predictions:
Top 4: Leicester, Northampton, Saracens, Bath
By Stuart Jones