Aviva Premiership: Northampton and Saracens are top of the form

With the season at the halfway point, we consider how the class of 2013-14 is shaping up

Bath

Bruce Craig has spent so much time moving and shaking his way through the trenches of Heineken Cup warfare, it is difficult to fathom how he performs such an energetic role at the club he bought four years ago. There again, if you’re valued at the fat end of £450m, you can afford to create some elbow room. There are those at The Rec who wonder whether the coaching set-up will ever be truly stable under Craig’s brand of hands-on autocracy – last month’s termination of Gary Gold’s rugby directorship, ruthlessly sudden in its implementation, was merely the latest upheaval – but with a juggernaut pack generating some oomph at close quarters, the try-count amongst a bright set of backs will surely grow.

Mid-term rating: B+

Exeter

The Devonians are admirable in so many ways, but you have to wonder if they are making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves with their doctrinaire tactical approach. The Christmas defeat at Harlequins demonstrated all too clearly that possession for possession’s sake is a dead end street in modern rugby: better surely to kick at the right times and strike from the right areas of the field rather than play keep-ball as a matter of policy. Still, they have a top-six look about them, and things can only get better with the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm playing out of his skin and some of the best young talent in the country – take a bow, Jack Nowell – settling into vibrant Premiership careers.

Mid-term rating: B-

Gloucester

Everything connects in rugby: if Freddie Burns, the most exciting outside-half in the land, has slipped off his level over the first half of the season, the Cherry and White tight forwards must accept much of the blame. Problems up front may have persuaded Burns that his future lay elsewhere – he will not spend much time on the back foot at Leicester, that’s for sure – and despite the important victory at London Irish last weekend, there is no obvious reason to think Gloucester will make complete sense of things at the sharp end before the arrivals of Richard Hibbard and John Afoa in June. Thank heaven, therefore, for the resourcefulness of Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder and Rob Cook behind the scrum.

Mid-term rating: D

Harlequins

There were many who wondered if Quins might be the ones to struggle at close quarters after the exasperating departure of James Johnston to Saracens, but Joe Marler has dealt as capably as most with the new scrum protocols and the much-travelled Dave Ward has been a revelation at hooker. Given set-piece security, the Londoners have the all-court game to beat anyone: they can play it through the hands or take the aerial route; they can put width on the ball or back their offloading game in tight.

It takes character for an injury-riddled team to rediscover the best of themselves while facing opponents as mighty as Clermont Auvergne, but that was the way of it. Expect them to gather momentum.

Mid-term rating: B+

Leicester

The Tigers never expect sympathy – Welford Road is the last place you’d expect to find a bleeding heart – and they sure as hell won’t receive any, but there is only so much injury trauma a club can absorb and still mount a meaningful defence of their domestic title. Players have been missing by the dozen and rumour had it that Richard Cockerill briefly considered fielding his two press officers in midfield when every other centre was broken. But where do we find them? Lurking dangerously, with a play-off spot in their sights.

With Mathew Tait restored to fitness at full-back and Miles Benjamin cutting up defences on the wing, the recent humiliation at Saracens will fade from the memory soon enough.

Mid-term rating: C+

London Irish

It is all very well going through a period of transition, as long as you have a clear idea of where you’ll end up. Clarity is at a premium with the Exiles, despite a feelgood move into new ownership: no one seems quite sure how much money will be made available for squad-building, or whether the two stellar backs on the books – James O’Connor of Australia, Marland Yarde of England – will still be there this time next year.

While a state-of-the-art training centre is about to come on stream, the team itself is in a very different kind of state. But for the low-profile, high-producing centres Eamonn Sheridan and Fergus Mulchrone, they’d be even closer to winless Worcester than they are.

Mid-term rating: D-

Newcastle

They’re not bottom, so Dean Richards can reasonably claim to be making the best of a bad job. In every other respect, the numbers are grim.

The Tynesiders have gone hours at a time without scoring a try – they have managed only five all season, at the barely existent rate of one every two and a bit games – and are conceding more generously than any team bar Worcester, who do not appear to have a defence at all.

If Kingston Park, up there on the Premiership’s wild frontier, has lost its reputation as an awkward venue, it is because Richards does not have anywhere near enough good players at his disposal. A run of three winnable matches in early spring will be important.

Mid-term rating: D-

Northampton

Expectation was so high after a productive summer on the recruitment front, Jim Mallinder must have started the season fearing he had bought too well. The boss need not have worried: George North and Salesi Ma’afu have hit their straps; Kahn Fotuali’i has driven Lee Dickson into a wonderfully rich run of form; Alex King, the new attack coach, has pushed all the right buttons in adding variety to the Midlanders’ attacking game. Even the immediate loss of Alex Corbisiero, the major front-row signing, has worked for them by making a man of Alex Waller, the brightest young propping prospect in the country. A word too for Stephen Myler at outside-half. Nobody talks about him, but he’s bang on the money.

Mid-term rating: A*

Sale

It’s not all about Danny Cipriani: three forwards who wouldn’t recognise a celebrity lifestyle if it sat on their laps in a nightclub – the prop Vadim Cobilas, the lock Michael Paterson and the loose forward James Gaskell – have been equally influential in restoring the Northerners’ sense of balance after a disorientating spell of comings and goings on and off the field. But it would be fatuous to deny that Cipriani has contributed hugely since his last brush with notoriety, a tangle with a double-decker bus in which he finished a very distant second.

Having already travelled to four of the top five, Sale have a puncher’s chance of a top-six finish. Who would have thought it back in the  summer?

Mid-term rating: C+

Saracens

Rivals continue to whinge about the Londoners: they are suspicious of their South African links, their spending power, their love of gimmickry, their Moonie-like sense of cultishness. Yet increasingly, there are good reasons to love Mark McCall’s men rather than loathe them. Some of their many tries have been things of beauty and they are as generous as anyone in giving bright young academy graduates a proper taste of big-time rugby. Steve Borthwick, the captain, remains wholly admirable; Jacques Burger is the closest thing the Premiership has to a Byronic hero – a flanker in exile utterly selfless in his commitment to the cause. Yes, we can do without the “free entry to Elvis lookalikes” nonsense, but hell...they’re a very good side.

Mid-term rating: A* 

Wasps

Dai Young played a blinder as rugby director last season – and the season before, come to that. He is playing a blinder still and as a result, life may soon be beautiful again for a powerhouse club fallen on bitterly hard times.

Wasps still have their rough days – their home performance against Bath at the back end of November was truly gruesome – and their Adams Park venue will never be anything other than a passion-killer. But the young forwards in the pack, from Joe Launchbury and Sam Jones to the fast-developing Jake Cooper-Woolley, are showing real signs of life, and once Christian Wade returns to the back division, tries will be scored in volume. A work in progress, but an exciting one.

Mid-term rating: C+

Worcester

There are two ways of looking at this, and we know which one Dean Ryan prefers in his first season as bearer of the poisoned chalice. Ryan’s critics accuse him of presiding over a serious falling-off in defensive application, exacerbated by an epidemic of rash indiscipline at the breakdown. More positive-minded observers will argue that the boss is in the early stages of a root-and-branch restructuring project and that the recuitment of the highly effective Nick Johnston as high performance director is a mighty step in the right direction.

Facts are facts, though: the Midlanders have yet to win a game and there will be no obvious sign of a change for the better if they succumb at London Irish today.

Mid-term rating: E-

Season so far: the highs and lows

Six of the best...

* The new scrum protocols, which make life easier for the good props and harder for the useless ones.

* James Simpson-Daniel’s decision to stick with Gloucester rather than follow the money to France.

* Dylan Hartley’s return to form for Northampton after the self-inflicted wounds of last season.

* The flourishing of the Saracens flanker Jacques Burger and the Leicester wing Miles Benjamin following their reappearances after career-threatening injuries.

* The goal-kicking style of the Gloucester full-back Rob Cook, which might be mistaken for an arrestable offence.

* Dean Ryan’s refusal to fall back on excuses in his regular appraisals of Worcester’s slide towards the earth’s core.

... And six of the worst

* The sickening treatment of Ed Morrison, whose departure as the Rugby Football Union’s referees manager was spectacularly mishandled.

* Austin Healey’s cheap verbal assault on Steve Borthwick while commentating on last month’s Saracens-Leicester game.

* The constant referrals to the “television match official”. What fool ever claimed that technology would make the game better?

* James O’Connor being photographed in Toulon, a day after making his debut for London Irish. There’s loyalty for you.

* Dark deeds at the Recreation Ground, where Bath rugby director Gary Gold was managed out of his job.

* Mass substitutions an hour into almost every game. How many more contests will be wrecked by tinkering coaches?

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