And so, into the New Year, where titles can be won and lost and international selection is the hot topic of debate for offices all over the rugby-loving country.
One team who made a big claim for a play-off place with their performance this weekend is Leicester. Having looked sloppy for the majority of the start of the season, they remembered what it was that makes them so successful in the second half of their match against Harlequins to win 42 – 13 and launch themselves into 3rd place. Forwards charging around with power and purpose, inside backs with sublime touches and outside backs with scorching pace will ensure Leicester are thereabouts come the end of the season. Harlequins will need to re-assess and ensure their backs take more responsibility in their defensive line if they are to challenge. Perhaps Dean Richards should make them do a bit of rucking practice?!
In one of those classic Recreation Ground mud baths, Bath overcame Gloucester 10 -5 in a tight clash on Friday night. It is difficult to see how either of these teams will not be in the top four at the end of the season, which, coupled with Leicester’s return to form, might leave just one spot for the chasing pack to compete for.
The only match on Saturday saw Wasps take on Leeds at Adams Park. In what has become a worrying habit for Wasps they took the lead early on with tries from Worsley, Waters and Lewsey to go into a 25 – 3 lead, then nearly threw it away by allowing Leeds to come back to 25 – 17. It will be very interesting to see if Wasps can challenge on all three fronts this season. As for Leeds, I would be very worried by Worcester’s southern hemisphere signings as it looks like it will be a straight fight between the two clubs to avoid the drop.
As well as Quins v Leicester, Sunday brought fixtures between Bristol and Saracens, London Irish and Sale, and Newcastle and Worcester. Bristol provided the biggest upset by beating Saracens 18 – 3. This season is so important for Saracens. Having made their big Southern hemisphere signings of Chris Jack and Brent Russell they were hoping to put together a concerted effort to challenge for the premiership title. If this doesn’t happen the season will be a disappointment.
London Irish kept their Heineken Cup form going with a victory over Sale. This just goes to show how competitive the English league is (or how inconsistent the teams are). Sale beat Leicester in round 8, Irish lose to Leicester in round 9, Irish beat Sale in round 10. It all means that whoever ends up in a top four spot will have a good chance of lifting the trophy.
Newcastle had Wilkinson to thank for a 15 point haul in their victory over Worcester. Regardless of the flair of the pretenders to his crown (Cipriani, Geraghty, Lamb), the world cup (03!) hero knows how to win a tight game and this could be the reason he is picked to be England’s fly-half all the way to the next world cup.
Another 2-week hiatus for the culmination of the group stages of the Heineken Cup is upon us with the premiership resuming in anger on 25th January.
By Jon Hobbs