Half-term report: Bath battered as Saints soar

Northampton have been the pick of the Premiership season thus far but there is still much to play for, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Bath

Bath won three Premiership games in four outings during September, but it was the one they lost, a 31-10 shellacking at Northampton, that exposed the underlying trend in all its grisly detail.

Too old up front and too slow behind the scrum, they have not summoned the sustained energy, or found the sustained tempo, to ask questions of the country's leading half-dozen teams. Add to this the destabilising effect of an uncertain future – everyone knows change is coming on the back of Bruce Craig's millions, but no one knows what or when – and the reasons for the downturn are obvious.

Current position: 9th; Last season: 4th; Performance rating: 3/10

Exeter

Unlike their nearest neighbours, the newcomers know precisely who they are, what they're about and where they're attempting to go. Intelligently prepared by Rob Baxter, a quiet master when it comes to identifying his players' strengths and coaching to them, they have lost only once at Sandy Park – to London Irish, by the odd kick in seven – and are close to safety already. Vulnerable to opponents who generate extreme pace, like Harlequins and Wasps, they are far better suited to arm-wrestle rugby and should prosper during the wet weeks of winter, especially if their marksmanship holds up.

Current position: 8th; Last season: promoted; Performance rating: 8/10

Gloucester

The Kingsholmites have not played Premiership rugby since November, so it is difficult to make a judgement on James Simpson-Daniel and his England prospects. This much is certain, though: Gloucester's success in mining a rich vein of young back-line talent – Sharples and Trinder, Burns and May, Lewis and Pasqualin – has given players of longer standing, Simpson-Daniel included, the impetus they needed to rediscover the best of themselves. Still prone to the odd daft defeat (Exeter and Newcastle spring to mind), they are at least performing with some snap, crackle and pop. A top-four finish is well within their compass.

Current position: 6th; Last season: 7th; Performance rating: 6.5/10

Harlequins

Anonymity made flesh, which is probably as well, given the continuing stench of the fake blood affair. The Londoners thought they had buried the bones, but disciplinary hearings involving two of those directly involved in the events of April 2009 amounted to public exhumations, and every time Tom Williams – the player at the centre of the scandal – takes the field in one of those multicoloured shirts, the corpse twitches. Successful enough off the pitch, Quins are paragons of inconsistency on it. Joe Marler, the Mohican-haired prop, and George Lowe, the bright-spark outside back, are progressing faster than the team.

Current position: 7th; Last season: 8th; Performance rating: 4.5/10

Leeds

It was not meant to be like this. After securing their Premiership status last season, earning themselves an extra £1m of central funding in the process, the Yorkshiremen set their sights on some mid-table comforts, figuring that a little judicious recruitment would be enough to propel them onwards and upwards. Nine defeats into the campaign, four of them at Headingley, there is more than a whiff of target reassessment in the northern air. Leeds still do some things rather well, but as they are shipping three tries for every one scored, defence clearly isn't among them.

Current position: 12th Last season: 10th; Performance rating: 2.5/10

Leicester

Some things never change. The Rugby Football Union still insists on a blast of "Land of Hope and Glory" before a Twickenham international; Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman, continues to cast his Putinesque spell over the governing body; and dear old Leicester are thereabouts at the top of the table. They are not in prime condition – it took them until early December to win away from Welford Road – but like good Stilton and old socks, they need time to ripen. Horribly confrontational and competitive up front, they will not relinquish their title easily.

Current position: 2nd; Last season: 1st; Performance rating: 6.5/10

London Irish

If rugby was football, Toby Booth would be feeling some heat. The Exiles are on an eight-match losing streak, including four straight in the Premiership, and the head coach openly acknowledges that business is not as it should be. But most of these recent setbacks have occurred on the road against serious opposition and there is no reason to suspect anything terminal, so long as Paul Hodgson stays upright at scrum-half and they start nailing tackles instead of missing them. A play-off place remains a legitimate goal.

Current position: 4th; Last season: 6th; Performance rating: 5/10

Newcastle

Back in the day, the Tynesiders would have been more than happy to reach the new year boasting the same try-count as Bath, but given that the West Countrymen are shooting peas rather than bullets this season, parity at 11-apiece is not much to write home about. Once again, Newcastle are over-reliant on Jimmy Gopperth; once again, they are vulnerable on their travels. The recent purchase of the Scotland prop Euan Murray showed ambition, but tight heads do not attract bankers' salaries because they transform a team's attacking game. There may be trouble ahead.

Current position: 11th; Last season: 9th; Performance rating: 3.5/10

Northampton

No one calls them pretty – no one, that is, except those who see beauty in a pug-ugly pack sweeping all before it and a pair of outsized centres making mincemeat of opponents who have the temerity to attack them with ball in hand. The Midlanders will not win awards for artistic impression, yet their unquenchable thirst for rugby's primordial side does not make them a team of knuckle-draggers. Far from it. In Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, they have three genuine footballers up front to go with the instinctive finishers out wide. Impressive.

Current position: 1st; Last season: 2nd; Performance rating: 9/10

Sale

There are more questions than answers at Edgeley Park, the most impenetrable of which concerns the appointment of Mike Brewer as head coach last April. Why did they do it? God only knows, but he's gone already. We now move on current topics. Will Charlie Hodgson stay on? Will Andrew Sheridan? Will the outstanding Mark Cueto be able to punch his weight as captain while spending two months in camp with England? Will the real Mathew Tait stand up? And finally: is the club in any position to withstand a mid-season run of form from Leeds? A nasty one, that.

Current position: 10th; Last season: 11th; Performance rating: 4/10

Saracens

Outspoken, outlandish and occasionally outstanding, the Premiership's No 1 cabaret act continue to entertain while getting up the noses of rugby officialdom. You have to love them for it, although Brendan Venter's impending departure for his native South Africa will do nothing for the sense of spectacle. Gavin Henson's arrival is positive, and it won't be long before another problem player – the highly skilled England prop Matt Stevens – finishes his drugs ban and materialises alongside him. Stevens and Schalk Brits in the same pack? Truly, the age of the front-row troglodyte is reaching its end.

Current position: 3rd; Last season: 3rd; Performance rating: 7.5/10

Wasps

The Londoners once made a habit of flying in the face of logic by winning titles without a set-piece game worthy of the name. These days, they are in a slightly different position: while they still struggle at scrum and line-out, they are unlikely to lay hands on any silverware. They are not quite the pushovers they appeared to be when Northampton laid waste to them in October, thanks to their potency in midfield, but they are in a rut off the field and in danger of allowing the professional game to pass them by.

Current position: 5th; Last season: 5th; Performance rating: 5/10

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