The Usual Suspects: Leicester, Wasps
They have split the glittering prizes of the Guinness Premiership between them for more than a decade now – six Leicester titles in 11 years, four Wasps triumphs over the same time span – and if neither of the English game's dominant clubs can claim to be fielding a vintage team this term, it does not mean one of them will not be popping another cork come late May.
The only guaranteed means of forcing a change of guard is to deny these masters of the play-off format access to it in the first place, which means keeping them out of the top four. Unfortunately for those others who aspire to silverware, both are on the pace and handily positioned.
Leicester, in particular, refuse to budge an inch. It may well be that the likes of Louis Deacon and Jordan Crane – maybe Dan Hipkiss, too – are short of true international class, but they are brilliant operators at Premiership level: ruthless, intense, hard-bitten, utterly selfless. Having worked their way into the top four despite injuries across the back division, they may yet survive the annual ransacking of their squad by the Six Nations community.
Wasps occupy a stranger place: unsettled in their High Wycombe backwater, unconvincing in the nuts-and-bolts departments of scrum and line-out, unsure how best to maximise the elusive talents of Danny Cipriani. Yet they are firmly in touch with events at the business end of the table, have a game in hand on all their principal rivals and reek of danger.
The Go-Ahead Generation: Saracens, London Irish, Northampton, Harlequins
There is an overwhelming whiff of naked ambition about the Premiership's self-styled "new elite", and they have both the financial clout and the drawing-board vision to back it up. All four see Heineken Cup qualification as a minimum requirement, so with the Premiership cut-off point possibly as high as fifth, there is rich potential for fun and games ahead. More to the immediate point, all except Quins have legitimate designs on finishing the regular season in top spot.
Saracens, strong defensively and utterly pragmatic in approach, are adopting a "nobody likes us and we don't care" mentality that makes them devilishly difficult to shift. London Irish managed to get one over on them last weekend, but last year's runners-up had to shift heaven and earth to do it and will be relieved that the early-season "double-header" stunt at Twickenham spares them a trip to Vicarage Road – a soulless armpit of a venue that makes Hades itself look inviting.
It is becoming ever more apparent that a couple of individuals – Bob Casey in the pack, Delon Armitage outside it – are the deal-breakers in the vibrant world of the Exiles. Without them, Toby Booth's team are expertly drilled and fiercely competitive; with them, they are something more, and that something could take them all the way to the title. Quietly, they have pieced together a squad covering every base bar these two: they can survive the loss of a wing as potent as Sailosi Tagicakibau; a hooker as vibrant as David Paice; even, just about, a scrum-half as accomplished as Paul Hodgson. Top four? At least.
Northampton, utterly secure at Franklin's Gardens and increasingly confident when playing elsewhere, should join them. Driven along by the unfailingly energetic Dylan Hartley – an inspired choice as captain – they can almost match London Irish, their opponents today, in terms of squad depth, although their all-round kicking game is not of the same calibre. Four consecutive victories makes them marginal favourites for this afternoon's meeting in the East Midlands, but only a soothsayer or a fool would risk a penny of his money on the outcome.
If Quins are out of kilter with the other three, it is purely because their summer of scandal left them playing catch-up. In this regard, as is so many others, John Kingston has played a blinder. If the young Dean Richards resembled an angry bull elephant when in possession of the ball, the older version left an entire herd's worth of you-know-what behind him after resigning over the fake blood affair that kept everyone entertained through the dead months of the close season. Kingston, left holding an industrial-strength dustpan and brush, coached the trauma out of his players and has taken four wins and a draw from the seven matches since early October. Thanks to him, it is a case of onwards and upwards.
The Horizontal Heavyweights: Gloucester, Sale, Bath
Gloucester finished top of the log in 2003, 2007 and 2008; Sale broke the Leicester-Wasps monopoly by winning the whole shooting match in 2006; Bath are always regarded as big hitters, even when they are struggling to punch their way out of a wet paper bag. Suddenly, the world is passing this trio by, and unless they address some very serious issues, they will be threatened with irrelevance.
For Gloucester, the problem is one of muscle – or rather, the lack of it. Two-thirds of a decent side is not nearly enough when the missing third happens to be the tight five of the scrum, where rugby's arguments are generally won and lost. The cutting edge outside – Olly Morgan, James Simpson-Daniel, Nicky Robinson – is definitely there. Missing? A couple of blunt instruments to go with it.
At least the Cherry and Whites have a stadium worthy of the name. Sale and Bath are lumbered with venues barely fit for purpose, and this, when added to other, wholly contrasting problems, is making life difficult. The former have struggled to regain their equilibrium since the departure of the director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, and the loss of half a dozen international-quality players, some of whom can be counted among the world's best. But for the effervescence of Kingsley Jones, the new main man, and the youthful vigour of the academy products James Gaskell and Carl Fearns, they would be in a state.
Bath, on the other hand, possess many of the right players: at least, they will do once Butch James and Olly Barkley get themselves fit. Their problem is largely one of psychology. Everyone at the Recreation Ground denies it, but the chemically driven scandals of last season – a positive test for cocaine use by one international, an admission after the event by another, missed tests by both co-captains, long bans all round – have impacted horribly. Michael Claassens, the superb South African scrum-half asked to lead a side in dire need of a safe pair of hands, has been suffocated by the responsibility and further hindered by the absence of a kicking game outside him. Too good up front to go down, they are not yet strong enough up top to prosper.
The Also-Rans: Newcastle, Worcester, Leeds
Things are stirring in the broad acres, although Leeds are going about their business arse-backwards by winning away from home rather than in front of their own supporters. A Headingley victory over a vulnerable Bath today would be a significant statement, although there will be further chances next month when they host Leicester and Wasps, both of whom will be weakened by Six Nations calls. Like most bottom-feeders, they score too few tries and concede too many, but with Neil Back's defensive know-how beginning to trickle down, survival is not yet out of the question.
Which is bad news for Worcester, who have not won a Premiership match since late September and are being sucked into the danger zone. They can barely score a try, try as they might – nine in 11 outings amounts to starvation rations – and while Sixways still has something of the fastness about it, Northampton's comprehensive win there on Boxing Day must be of concern.
Newcastle have rediscovered their anonymity after flirting with some personality-driven rugby that resulted in outstanding victories at Bath and London Irish. They are neither one thing nor the other, as their mid-table position suggests, but failure to improve on their last three performances – all of which ended in defeat, two of them thoroughly miserable – could send them in a southerly direction.
Killer half-term stat: Eight drawn matches
Eight? Already? It is a record-breaker, to be sure. The current campaign has already surpassed the Premiership's previous high mark for squared contests – seven in 2003-04, and again in 2005-06 – with more than four months and 60-odd fixtures of the regular season remaining.
Who can we blame for this epidemic of dissatisfaction? (It was Mark Evans, the Harlequins chief executive, who described drawn rugby matches as the sporting equivalent of "kissing your sister".) Step forward Newcastle and Worcester, two of the league's lowest try-scorers. Both have a penchant for equality, having participated in three deadlocks apiece. Oddly enough, their meeting at Kingston Park in November was not even close. The Tynesiders won 14-3.Reuse content