Sale in clear water as tide rises on strugglers

Philippe Saint-André's men have illuminated the first slice of the season but - with the return of Harlequins assured - life is about to get unpleasant for the sides at the foot of the English game's élite club competition
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It has been unnervingly quiet on the promotion and relegation front since the Guinness Premiership began its long march to finals day at Twickenham in the less grandiose surroundings of downtown Stockport in the first week of September, and there has been no hint of an official explanation. For a decade or more, rugby's political classes have discussed the R-word the way Ian Paisley talks about his maker - almost daily, and at considerable volume. Why should this season be any different? How come the Premiership clubs are not ranting and raving and howling at the moon? After careful consideration, there is only one possible answer: Harlequins. Yes, them.

Harlequins are more than a rugby club, although there were times last season when they seemed rather less than a rugby club. They are an institution. What is more, they are an institution situated in the union desert known as Greater London. They have a magnificent new stand, worldwide brand recognition, a coach called Dean Richards and an outside-half by the name of Andrew Mehrtens. They will win National Division One by a country mile, they will meet all the promotion criteria in their sleep, and the big cheeses of Premiershipland want them.

They want them so badly, they are more than happy to blow a farewell kiss to this season's bottom club and forget about them, rather than man the barricades on their behalf. The élite clubs have not given up on negotiating an end to relegation, far from it; they still see it as the greatest evil in the professional game, the one hangover from pre-history that prevents them transforming expensive sporting diversions into profitable businesses. But they do not want to ring any fences just yet. Not without Quins, the only saviours of the game as a spectator sport to be found in the capital city.

So who will leave the party in May, perhaps never to be seen again? Not Sale, that's for sure. As the campaign reaches its mid-point over the next three afternoons, Philippe Saint-André's invigorating mix of all of the talents lead the 12-team table from the three-time champions Wasps. This is no accident. Sale's challenge has been meticulously planned by Saint-André, a Frenchman who leaves most of his English rivals for dead when it comes to recruitment, and generously financed by Brian Kennedy. Yes, there are imports - Daniel Larrechea and Valentin Courrent switched from Le Championnat in the summer, lured by Saint-André's reputation and the successful transitions of the two Sébastiens, Bruno and Chabal - but there is a rich seam of English-qualified talent, too. Sale are ruthless, but they do not take without giving.

Not even Saint-André can work the oracle without a world-class performer here and there, as he discovered during his stints with Gloucester and Bourgoin. At Sale, he has a sprinkling of stardust. Jason Robinson, available on a full-time basis after abandoning his England career for positive family reasons, is still a wing to die for, as is Mark Cueto. (Frighteningly, a finisher as prolific as Steve Hanley cannot get a run when the entire squad is present and correct). But the big figures - very big indeed in one particular case - are Charlie Hodgson and Andrew Sheridan.

Hodgson's influence knows no bounds, and he is in serious danger of forcing the English rugby public into a state of collective amnesia on the Jonny Wilkinson front. Sheridan, the most substantial prop in the country by an entire mountain range, is destroying opposition packs for fun and allowing his playmaker-in-chief to operate on the front foot. All things being equal, Sale should top the log at the end of the regular season, although they will not be wildly enthusiastic about making the trip to Wasps on a Six Nations afternoon.

The confluence of Premiership and international business is one of the great frustrations of the dog's dinner known as the fixture list. Do we really want the two leading sides in the country standing eyeball to eyeball without the likes of Hodgson and Sheridan, Cueto and Chabal, Josh Lewsey and Matthew Dawson, Simon Shaw and Johnny O'Connor? It is only marginally less exasperating than the play-off system, which has given Wasps three titles on the cheap and enables a side like Leicester to pick half a team for a trip to Bristol, lose hands down and barely bat an eyelid. Had the Premiership been a straight league, the Midlanders would not, in a month of Sundays, have fielded the side they did at the Memorial Ground last Monday. As it is, they do not need to finish top to reconquer the land. Top four will be sufficient to earn them a shot, as they know all too well.

At least this top-four lark is less cut and dried than usual. Worcester, now a rugby town as vibrant as Gloucester or Northampton, were up there in the leading quartet until Bath put two interception tries past them at Sixways on Boxing Day, while London Irish have relieved Leicester of third place and are joyously filling their lungs with the thin air of high altitude. Brian Smith, who forsook the mysteries of Japan to take up his post in unmysterious Reading, is one of the brightest coaches of his generation, and he has the Exiles humming. Their next three games - home matches with Wasps today and Leicester next weekend, followed by a trip to Kingsholm - will be defining moments in their season.

Of the middle-ranking sides, Gloucester have been the quietest, yet have a strong claim to be the most intriguing. They have given up on Henry Paul, which is less bold a decision than it might have been, thanks to the rapid progress made by Anthony Allen, who did not so much shine at the Middlesex Sevens as blind the audience with rugby of great promise and no little maturity. Allen is beginning to translate that form to the 15-a-side game. Still in his teens and surrounded by a veritable crèche-load of fellow backs barely out of nappies - Olly Morgan, James Bailey, Mark Foster - he represents the future of a club incarcerated in their own tradition for far too long.

Assuming Bristol are now more likely to survive than not - they have been one of the principal glories of the last four months, to the extent that their coach, Richard Hill, is emerging as the obvious successor to Andy Robinson when the England job falls vacant after the 2007 World Cup - there is likely to be the mother and father of a scrap among the bottom feeders once the Six Nations is out of the way. Not that Bristol are home free just yet; they are still four wins shy of security. But if all else fails, they host Newcastle and Northampton during April. Hill, quite brilliant at targeting must-win games, will expect at least eight points from those fixtures.

Until last Monday, when they suffered a defeat by Newcastle that hit them square in the unmentionables, Leeds appeared to be finding the momentum many assumed they would generate from the outset of the campaign but turned out to be a mere fancy. They had wangled a pair of victories over Northampton and Bath and fronted up magnificently against the ambitious Catalans of Perpignan in the Heineken Cup. The notion that they were too good to finish bottom, that Justin Marshall and Gordon Bulloch would use their vast international experience to help some of the best young players in England make the best of themselves, was suddenly a going concern once again.

Now, not even the eternally optimistic Phil Davies can be sure of his ground. The director of rugby has had a difficult time of it - rumours of open declarations of player unrest on the journey home from a Heineken Cup hiding at Cardiff Blues remain resolutely unscotched - and if the Yorkshiremen take nothing from their trip to Northampton at the end of January, they will be vulnerable indeed.

Should they be lost to the Premiership, whither top-flight rugby union in the broad acres? As anyone from Leeds will readily confirm, union is the fourth game in town behind football, cricket and rugby league. Relegation would see it slip behind whippet racing and mud-wrestling, not to mention curling for the over-60s and ballroom dancing for elderly fast bowlers. It is not a pleasant thought, for Yorkshire is among the vital arteries of England's sporting heart.

If anyone can keep them up, Marshall can. Hodgson is certainly the man of the first chunk of the season, but the most-capped scrum-half in the annals of All Black rugby may well turn out to be the most significant individual of the coming weeks and months.

Chris Hewett hands out his half-time awards


* THE INVISIBLE MAN AWARD: Andy Farrell (Saracens - or not)

* THE ALL-TOO-VISIBLE AWARD: Interfering touch-judges