The focus for many people this Autumn may have been on England's fantastic success down under at the Rugby World Cup but this side of the equator the first half of the 2003/04 Zurich Premiership has thrown up plenty of surprises. The 12 Zurich Premiership clubs supplied over 55 players to the World Cup meaning that clubs had to manage their squads carefully so as not to miss their International stars too much during the first half of the season.
Leicester Tigers were most affected by the tournament, losing a total of eight players (including seven to England) but ten of the 12 clubs supplied players of many different nationalities for the World Cup. During the off-season the 12 clubs voted to maintain the same points scoring system for the season even during the World Cup which means that the first half of the season was just as important as the second. The league table makes for interesting reading with the likes of Leicester Tigers and Gloucester lower down than many have come to expect. Whereas in previous seasons, the lead that Bath have picked up could have led to a predictable end to the season and a lack of a climatic finish, the Zurich Premiership play-off format which the clubs have now adopted means that interest and excitement will be maintained right up until the end of the season.
The lure of the World Cup did not have a negative effect on the premiership crowds during the eight weeks when both premiership and International rugby were on offer as crowds were consistently strong during the tournament and season tickets sales at their highest ever level. England's win will hopefully now encourage even more people to sample a Zurich Premiership match and enjoy the world class entertaining rugby on offer. A recent survey on the ITV website showed that 97% of the 4800 people surveyed are more likely to have an interest in the Zurich Premiership as a result of the Rugby World Cup.
The first half of the season may have been unpredictable with many new faces on the scene, and the next 11 rounds promise to be just as unpredictable but with the World Cup heroes thrown into the equation. Who knows who will reach the all important top three positions come the 8th May?
Around the clubs
One of the lasting memories of last season would have been the nail-biting relegation match between Bath and Newcastle Falcons on the final weekend of last season, so to find Bath leading the table this season has come as a surprise for many. They have put last season's difficulties and the critics firmly behind them by leading the Zurich Premiership table since Round 4. Despite losing six players to the World Cup, Bath have maintained consistently strong form winning ten of their first 11 matches, helped by the return to form of kicker Olly Barkley and the strength of their front five. Director of Rugby Jack Rowell said, "It has been a better than expected start to the season considering that there were wholesale changes at the club during the summer. With 16 new players coming into the squad it has been incredible how quickly everyone has bonded as a team."
Last season's champions, London Wasps, are another side who have had a successful start to the domestic season despite six International absentees. They are looking strong for a top three finish and a return to Twickenham to defend their championship title. Wasps have shown the advantage of developing youngsters with players such as John O'Connor and Ian Clarke ably deputizing for their International team mates during recent months. Director of Rugby Warren Gatland, said, "This season, for me, is by far the best and most exciting as it's become totally unpredictable. Sides that were battling relegation last season have become front-runners and now are in strong position to contest the title. If the second half of the season is anything like the first, the fans are in for a rugby feast".
London Irish were keen to put last season's disappointing season behind them and are currently sitting in third position. They have been consistent so far this season and are looking like the Powergen Cup winning side of two seasons ago. Everitt and Mapletoft have been on fine form sharing the fly-half duties. Gary Gold, Head Coach, London Irish explained, "I am happy with the way the first half of the season, including the Rugby World Cup period, has gone from a London Irish perspective. We have played seven games away from home and won four, including the club's first victory at Kingsholm in ten years! That combined with three wins out of four at home has given us the start to the season that we wanted! We are under no illusions about the difficulty of maintaining our progress in the second half, however the Zurich Premiership play-offs beckon and success in them would get us back into the Heineken Cup and that is one of our key objectives this year."
Northampton Saints are currently in fourth position despite mixed form. They may be playing hot and cold but are starting to build up a fortress at Franklin's Gardens. Wayne Smith, Director of Rugby, said, "For many teams, the season to date has been based around operating without World Cup players and trying to get as high up the premiership ladder as possible. We took the view that this part of the season provided an exciting opportunity for young players to step up and show how much the jersey means to them. That they did so, to the extent that we are top 4 in the league at this point, is a source of immense pride to us. From here on in, we are looking forward to the international players creating a real contest for the jersey, with a consequent improvement in the standard of our play. Given this, results will look after themselves."
Fifth placed Sale Sharks have also looked strong at times this season, finally settling into their new home Edgeley Park following a few early defeats at the Stockport stadium. The form of Andrew Sheridan and the return to fitness of Charlie Hodgson have helped keep them in the top half of the table and attracted consistently strong crowds for their special brand of Friday night rugby. Director of Rugby, Jim Mallinder said, "We started off the season playing better away from home and this included wins at Leicester Tigers and NEC Harlequins. We have now begun to win our home games as well and with the return to the fold of our World Cup players as well as the return of Charlie Hodgson from injury, we are looking forward to the second half of the season."
NEC Harlequins began the season at a pace and led the Zurich Premiership table for the opening few rounds. They have recently lost a bit of form but will be will be looking to strengthen once again now with the return of Greenwood and Leonard. Mark Evans, Director of Rugby, believes the end of season play-off format of the league will help the clubs this season in particular, "The first half of the Zurich Premiership has seen one side break away from the pack. But up to ten other teams will still harbour ambitions of reaching the Zurich Premiership play-offs or Heineken Cup slots. This is a tribute to the strength of the league - no easy games, no let up of pressure. It is a great competition."
Last season league leaders, Gloucester, built a fortress at Kingsholm and looked strong contenders for the title from the start. This year Gloucester have remained consistently strong at home, losing just one of their league matches at Kingsholm, but away from home their fortunes have been mixed. Nigel Melville, Director of Rugby said, "This season has very much been put into two sections with the World Cup happening throughout the Autumn. The first part of the season has given a number of opportunities to the younger members of our squad, and both them and the coaching team have learned from this period. With the increased exposure to the Zurich Premiership it has only added to the depth of playing squads throughout the league.
"From a Gloucester perspective the return of the World Cup players gave us a big boost both on the field and off it. When you look at the timetable of events ahead of us, there are only five months left of the season. We know what we've got to do in order to secure a top three position and qualify for the Zurich Premiership play-offs."
Newcastle Falcons are the only team to beat league leaders Bath but will be looking forward to the return of Jonny Wilkinson for the second half of the season, as soon as he returns to fitness. The visit of the Webb Ellis Cup for the match against London Wasps saw the first sell out crowd at Kingston Park since it's development. Rob Andrew, Director of Rugby at the Falcons, is looking forward to the return of the world's most famous fly-half, "We have been pleased with our overall improvement from last season, although a little disappointed with some of the games we feel we have let slip. We believe we could easily have finished the first half of the season in the top four; however, with the return of Jonny Wilkinson and Stuart Grimes from the World Cup we are well-placed for a successful second half of the season."
Leeds Tykes have been struggling at times to recapture the form shown last season and they will be disappointed to be in the lower half of the table. They are proving strong at home and will look to secure home wins in order to move them back up the table. Director of Rugby Phil Davies explained, "The first half of the season has seen us play some of the most exciting rugby we have ever played in the Zurich Premiership but we need to establish a level of consistency in our play. At the start of the season 14 new players joined us and it has taken a while for the team to settle into the season but there are some really positive signs for the rest of the campaign."
Leicester Tigers have had a tougher start than usual to the season losing eight players down under. Dean Richards targeted five wins during the World Cup period and the Tigers only fell one short and they remain in the hunt for a top three finish now their Internationals have returned. Richards said: "This period has given our younger players an excellent opportunity to gain valuable Zurich Premiership experience earlier than they would have expected. Losing so many top quality international players was always going to make things difficult for us but we are looking forward to getting on with the rest of the season and our goal remains the same as ever - to win every game we take part in."
In Rod Kafer's first few months of coaching Saracens have struggled to be competitive at times. There is indication that the second half of the season may well be more productive for the Men in Black - Tomas Castaignede replaces Andy Goode in the fly-half slot and Cobus Visagie and Raphael Ibanez bolster what was a lightweight front row plus the return of the World Cup heroes Hill and Bracken should all help give Saracens both direction and inspiration for the second half of the campaign.
Rod Kafer said, "We started brightly with a promising win on the opening day of the season at Newcastle. But that was followed by a disappointing run of results which coincided with run of injuries - some of them long-term. Coupled with six players on World Cup duty, it meant we found ourselves in a position we hadn't expected. However, we have taken steps to try and get performances heading back in the right direction which has been helped in recent weeks by the return of players from international duty and some of the long-term injured getting back into action"
Zurich Premiership new-boys, Rotherham Titans, may be struggling to match the performance of their premiership colleagues but a number of key signings at the half way stage of the league may give them the boost they require moving into the New Year.
Team Manager, Jim Kilfoyle, admits it has been a bit of a shock competing at the elite level again, "It has been a lot tougher than we expected. In most of the matches we were very competitive - but the edge in match-winning potential that each of the other sides possessed consistently punished any mistakes that we made. As you get on the back-foot injuries accrue - and the side has never been a consistent one. It was pointed out to me an observation about this season. We came into a relegation battle from the start and all the sides that had that mentality after the drama of last season whereas we were used to beating easier opposition at a lower level.
This mental toughness that sides have acquired might explain that the two heavy defeats we have had were at the hands of Bath and Newcastle Falcons - both having good seasons after last year's flirtations with the bottom place. As a result we have had to seek outside help to head up our battle for survival - and the recruitment of Steph Nel from South Africa has already given the club a real boost as he brings a new approach to our battle for survival. Newcastle Falcons showed what can be achieved last season by a positive and focused second half of a season. We hope to follow their example."
Zurich Premiership Table
The club finishing last in the table at the end of the Zurich Premiership is automatically relegated to National Divison One and the club finishing top of National Division One is promoted to the Zurich Premiership (subject to successfully meeting the Entry Criteria as set by England Rugby Limited). (Note, Leicester Tigers (1pt) and Saracens (2pts) have been deducted points for fielding unregistered players.)
The top team in the table after Round 22 will automatically qualify for the Zurich Premiership Final at Twickenham on 29th May 2004 whilst the second and third placed clubs will play off for the other finalist position.
The four highest finishing clubs who have not automatically qualified for the Heineken Cup will enter the Zurich Wildcard - offering the winner a place in Europe's finest competition.
RFU.com Zurich Premiership Statistics