Ten years ago, when Bath were moving serenely towards another league and cup double under the luminous likes of Brian Ashton and Phil de Glanville, the good men and true of Worcester were mud-wrestling with the Kendals and Wharfedales of this world in Division Five North. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that when the two sides meet at Sixways in the most intriguing of this afternoon's Premiership matches, the status of Worcester as favourites will effectively destroy whatever is left of the argument against promotion and relegation.
Worcester had a dream. Nightmarishly for the status quo, the dream was made flesh. A week shy of the mid-point of this season's campaign, they are fourth in the table, ahead of Gloucester and Saracens, Newcastle and Northampton. Not forgetting Bath, of course. Bath are in the bottom three, and while few believe they will stay there once Ashton, who returns to the club on New Year's day, adds some attacking know-how to all that forward muscle, it will be no particular surprise if they are still in that parlous position at teatime tomorrow.
They do things quietly at Sixways, but they do them properly. John Brain, the director of rugby, kept Worcester in the élite league last season without the services of a match-winner at No 10, and then went in search of one. Shane Drahm, who signed from Northampton, has been among the most influential players this term. Brain signed Kai Horstmann and Nicolas le Roux, too, and both are doing him proud. The squad has developed to such a degree that Andy Gomarsall, who won a World Cup winner's medal with England, and Tim Collier, a brutally effective lock throughout Worcester's promotion season, are no better than bench-bound.
It is perfectly possible that Bristol will do a Worcester by staying up against common expectation, thereby piling more pressure on those clubs who consider themselves Premiership high-rollers as of right. Certainly, Richard Hill would have settled for four victories before Christmas, and with Leicester fielding a rather peculiar starting line-up at the Memorial Ground tomorrow, a fifth win is not out of the question. The Tigers are never entirely comfortable in these parts. Quite how the likes of Ross Broadfoot, Neil Cole, James Buckland and Luke Abraham will cope with the stresses and strains is anybody's guess.
"There are a fair few changes, but you can hardly say we've weakened the team," argued Pat Howard, the Midlanders' head coach. Actually, it is perfectly fair to say just that. Julian White's return to the front row after a period of suspension and surgery is no sign of weakness, to be sure, and much the same can be said of Daryl Gibson's reappearance in midfield. But Howard has chosen to rest a platoon of capped players - Geordan Murphy, Leon Lloyd, Andy Goode, Ben Kay - as well as George Chuter and Shane Jennings, both of whom have been playing out of their skin.
A win for Bristol would take them over the 20-point threshold with a dozen fixtures left, three of which will be played on Six Nations Championship weekends. Despite the fact that none of their opponents on those dates will be overly troubled by international call-ups, points will be there for the accumulating. They travel to Headingley on the first of the relevant days - although Leeds are playing better rugby than they were, the West Country club's comprehensive victory over them last month will stand them in excellent stead - and host London Irish on the last of them, having been refereed out of a victory at the Madejski Stadium early in the season.
Sale, better value for their Premiership lead than the two-point advantage over Wasps suggests, will expect a bonus-point performance against Northampton this afternoon - a bonus point of the winning variety, needless to say. Wasps, meanwhile, face a Gloucester side confident of taking something from their trip to High Wycombe, even though Phil Vickery and James Forrester, named in the starting pack, are struggling with illness and injury respectively.Reuse content