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Alastair Hignell's half-term report

20 December 2004

At the halfway stage, there are no runaway leaders, and no clear candidates for relegation. Leicester may be 8 points ahead of the field at the top, but the four teams below the Tigers are separated by just three points.

Northampton may be three points adrift at the bottom of the table but only seven points separate the Saints from eighth-placed Saracens. 

Every one of the 12 teams have lost at least once in the first half of the season and won at least twice. Only Saracens have failed to win an away match, while only Northampton have failed to win more than once in front of their own fans. As the season reaches the halfway point, every single one of the 12 teams has everything to play for.

BATH

Current position; 4th. Pre-season prediction; 7th.

Bath got off to the worst possible start, losing their first two matches, both at home, and, after also going down at the hands of last season's nemesis Wasps, they go into the break with a modest 50 percent record at The Recreation Ground. But with a 16-all draw at Leicester the only smudge on their copybook, last season's league winners are the only unbeaten side away from home. The West countrymen have won four matches from 5 on the road, and with victories in their last four matches have worked their way into a threatening position, just ten points behind leaders Leicester.

But, injuries are starting to take their toll. A combination of "ballet-dancer's" foot and a persistent shoulder injury will sideline England centre Mike Tindall for some time. Former England fullback Matt Perry has picked up yet another injury to join fellow first- choices Jonathan Humphrey with s,  Danny Grewcock, Zac Feaunati, Martyn Wood and Robbie Fleck on the treatment table. 

 A trip to Sale in Christmas week is likely to be a severe test both of their strength in depth and on their unbeaten away record. One slice of luck in the second half of the season is that the  home fixture with Leicester is scheduled for a 6 Nations' weekend, when the Tigers should be considerably more compromised than Bath. After losing two of their first three Heineken Cup matches, the West countrymen are unlikely to suffer any European distractions in the second half of the season, but, at this stage it looks as though  they have too many injuries to key players to challenge for the really top honours.

GLOUCESTER

Current position; 5th. Pre-season prediction; 3rd.

Gloucester started the season with a bang, and four straight victories. After seven matches their by-now traditional collapse at Bath was the only blemish on their record. But an extraordinary spate of injuries derailed the Cherry and Whites just as they lost 3 key players, Henry Paul, Andy Gomarsall and Andy Hazell to the autumn international. Three straight defeats followed- at the hands of Leicester, Wasps -at Kingsholm- and, most unexpectedly at Saracens. A fine win at home to Sale was a good way to finish the first half of the season but another tranche of injuries in the Heineken Cup has left them with a bare minimum of fit players.

The unlucky James Simpson-Daniel  picked up another injury-to his shoulder - in the warm-up to his comeback match.He returns to the sidelines already populated by long-term absentees such as Phil Vickery, Chris Fortey, Olivier Azam and Terry Sigley. Alex Brown is still troubled by  a haematoma to his arm, and Duncan Macrae is also out for an indefinite period with a neck injury.

With Director of Rugby Nigel Melville looking to sign Welsh international Mefin Davies as short -term solution to the front-row injury crisis, the Cherry and Whites are putting on a brave face for Christmas. Even so, with their next two fixtures away to Wasps and home to Leicester, the season is likely to get worse before it gets better for Gloucester.

LEEDS

Current position; 9th. Pre-season prediction; 11th.

Leeds began the season with three straight defeats and  reached the half-way point on the back of a similar sequence. In between times they picked up 4 important wins- including vital away successes at Saracens and London Irish- to leave themselves 3 places and 6 points off the bottom of the Premiership.

An extraordinary 121-0 win over Valladolid in the European Shield has helped to restore some confidence following those three straight defeats but with 6 of their last 11 matches away from home, the Tykes know that they have to get points from their first 4 fixtures after the break- against Newcastle,Northampton, London Irish and Worcester- if they are to avoid a nerve-shredding climax to the campaign.

LEICESTER TIGERS

Current position; 1st. Pre-season prediction; 1st.

Leicester lost their first game of the season- at Sale- but have been unbeaten ever since. Draws at home to Bath and away to Wasps prevented it from being a perfect ten for the Tigers, but left the rest of the Premiership in no doubt that after two seasons of (only by their own  standards) mediocre achievement, Leicester are back in business.

With World Cup winners Martin Johnson and Neil Back devoting their talents exclusively to the club, the Tigers were able to compensate for the traditional drain on resources caused by the autumn internationals. Even though Leicester supplied half the England pack on three consecutive Saturdays at Twickenham, the Tigers rolled remorselessly on. At the half-way stage they are eight points clear of nearest rivals Wasps and after beating the Londoners on their own patch in the Heineken Cup, have established a vital psychological edge.

The return Premiership fixture with the Londoners is not till the end of April- the last league fixture of the season. At this stage, it looks like being the perfect finale.

LONDON IRISH

Current position; 6th. Pre-season prediction; 10th.

Defeat for the Exiles in 3 of their first four fixtures suggested that they were in for a season-long slog against relegation. But a run of 3 straight wins in November has left the Irish in the middle of the Premiership at the half-way point. Level on points with Newcastle, Irish have won a game more than the Falcons, but are still only 12 points clear of bottom club Northampton.

While delighted with the form shown by summer recruit Mike Catt, the Exiles have also picked up their share of injuries to key players. Another international recruit, Australian Scott Staniforth, is suffering from shin splints, while flanker Kieron Dawson, prop Neal Hatley and full-back Michael Horak are also sidelined.

The Exiles' first two fixtures after Christmas are against bottom pair Northampton and Worcester, while they play Sale on the first Six Nations' weekend. Three wins from three could leave the Exiles with a good chance of qualifying for Europe next season, and an outside chance of making the Premiership play-offs.

LONDON WASPS

Current position; 2nd. Pre-season prediction; 5th.

Until their defeat by Worcester in their last match before the mid-season break, the champions looked to be perfectly placed to defend their title. They had coped well with injuries to the likes of Simon Shaw and with Lawrence Dallaglio leading by example had shrugged off the loss to the autumn internationals of Josh Lewsey, Joe Worsley and Johnny O'Connor. Defeats by Saracens and Sale  in their opening two matches had been shrugged off as the sort of start the champions have got into the habit of making. A run of seven straight wins had actually catapulted Wasps into one of their best-ever pre-Christmas placings.

Wasps have a tough start to the second half of the season- Gloucester and Bath are the first visitors to the Causeway Stadium and both have a point to prove after losing at home to the Londoners. In between, Wasps travel to Harlequins, a fixture that in recent seasons has proved something of a stumbling block. They need 3 wins from 3 to keep the pressure on leaders Leicester.

NEC HARLEQUINS

Current position; 10th.  Pre-season prediction; 6th.

Quins got off to the worst start imaginable; after eight matches, they were rock bottom of the table with eight straight defeats. But Mark Evans' outfit beat Saracens at the start of the autumn international series and followed that up with a completely unexpected win at Sale  and a home victory over Leeds. However, at tenth in the table, a single point ahead of Worcester and four clear of Northampton, they are by no means breathing easily.

Quins' first game after the break is a relatively easy fixture against Saracens but then they have to face Wasps Leicester and Gloucester before the must-win return against Worcester. Their other really vital game, against bottom club Northampton at Franklin's Gardens, takes place at the end of March.

NEWCASTLE

Current position; 7th. Pre-season prediction; 2nd.

The Falcons got off to the perfect start, winning each of their three opening matches-two of those away from home. But Gloucester proved less hospitable in match four and sparked a run of  five matches without a win. Newcastle finished the first half of the season with 2 wins from 3 matches but should feel dissatisfied with their mid-table position.

Newcastle are, however, still unbeaten at Kingston Park and with six home games to come in the second half of the season- including Wasps on a Six Nations' weekend-  and with Jonny Wilkinson set to make his long-awaited return, the Falcons are well placed to climb the table.

NORTHAMPTON

Current position; 12th. Pre-season prediction; 4th.

It can't get any worse for Northampton. After winning their first two matches- against Bath and at Harlequins- the Saints lost nine in a row and ended the first half of the season by sacking their coach and changing their captain. The only way is up.

The new regime- Budge Pountney and Paul Grayson taking over the coaching reins  from Alan Solomons, Steve Thompson replacing Corne Krige as captain- tasted instant success with a Heineken Cup win over Toulouse. The acid test comes when the Premiership resumes.

The Saints though are still struggling with injuries- first-choice props Tom Smith and Robbie Kempson are long-term casualties- and although Northampton are by no means out of reach of seventh place and a shot at qualification for Europe through the Wildcard, the most important the most important item on the agenda is survival.

Northampton's last match of the season is against eleventh-placed Worcester at Six Ways. They have 5 other away matches before then- including visits to Sale, Wasps, Gloucester and Bath. Home matches against Leeds Saracens and Harlequins are already assuming massive proportions

SALE

Current position; 3rd. Pre-season prediction; 8th.

The surprise package of the season so far, Sale won their opening two matches- against Leicester and Wasps- and , by the time the autumn internationals began, were top of the table, with only a single defeat- at home to London Irish- to weigh against seven wins.

But when England summoned their top try-scorer Mark Cueto , their top points-scorer Charlie Hodgson  as well as their captain , Jason Robinson, Sale were unable to cope. While England played at Twickenham , the Sharks lost away to Bath and Gloucester and home to Harlequins. After threatening to open up a healthy lead in the Premiership they reached the half-way stage  ten points behind Leicester.

The Sharks may  not be best pleased that during the Six Nations they will have to face the return match with London Irish- the first team to beat them this season- but they will console themselves that their opponents on the only other occasion when the two competitions coincide will be Worcester.

Sale's first match after Christmas gives them an early chance of revenge against Bath and their last of the league season gives them the chance to set the record straight against Harlequins. Immediately preceding that game, the Sharks have to play Wasps, Leicester and Gloucester on successive weekends. Results in those three games will, almost certainly, define their season.

SARACENS

Current position; 8th. Pre-season prediction; 9th.

Saracens started the season with consecutive wins over Wasps and Worcester, but they stumbled to the halfway point with just one win in their last five matches. While all four of their victories have come at home, Saracens' biggest problems have come on the road. A 20-20 draw at Newcastle remains their best away result so far. They have six more away matches to come, with trips to Wasps and Gloucester sandwiching a home game against Leicester to provide a nightmare finish to the season.

Saracens play Harlequins at Vicarage Road in the first match after Christmas, knowing that they need to get points and results in the bag. Rod Kafer and his men will also be looking to the visits of Newcastle and Leeds to provide some sort of cushion.

WORCESTER

Current position; 11th. Pre-season prediction; 12th.

When the Warriors began the season with four straight defeats, it was widely assumed that they would follow their immediate predecessors Rotherham in marking their promotion year with a zero in the wins column.

But Worcester ambushed Harlequins at Sixways and then capitalised on rock-bottom morale at Northampton to pinch an away win before mugging Wasps during the autumn internationals. Whatever the excuses by their opponents, , the Warriors have staked the strongest possible claim to be taken seriously in the second half of the season.

That begins in the daunting surroundings of Welford Road and includes trips to Gloucester Bath, Newcastle and Wasps before a final match against Northampton at Sixways- a match that, if relegation is at stake and the pair retain their current positions, could well be worth millions of pounds.