Time to kick the habit
January 5, 2011
Leaders Northampton came unstuck against Harlequins at Franklin's Gardens last weekend © Getty Images
Bath Rugby England Exeter Chiefs Gloucester Rugby Harlequins Leicester Tigers London Irish Newcastle Falcons Northampton Saints Sale Sharks Saracens Wasps Yorkshire Carnegie
The New Year is all about breaking bad habits and while some Aviva Premiership sides have already begun a detox programme some others will be happy to indulge themselves just a little bit longer.
There were some huge surprises last weekend but the one that stands out most for me is Leeds' victory over Gloucester that brought an end to a run of nine Premiership defeats. I was looking at the table before the game and I couldn't see where Leeds were going to get a point from let alone a win. But they proved me, and a few others, wrong by not only breaking their duck but by beating a side like Gloucester who have impressed at times this season. They are obviously still propping up the table but that win puts massive pressure on Sale and Newcastle and could be a springboard for the rest of their season.
Exeter will also be feeling a little heat but their performance against Leicester suggests a lot of teams are going to be under the cosh at Sandy Park. The Chiefs did very well to pick up a bonus point but while they have good cushion they have still go to travel to Sale, Newcastle and Leeds. From a Leeds perspective, they needed to do something and quickly and they have done just that which is fantastic for the league as a whole.
The resurgence of Sale also heaps pressure on Newcastle - the only team in the bottom four not to register a point at the weekend. The Sharks did get a bit of luck against Saracens but that win could spark a bit of momentum and if I was at Kingston Park I would be a little nervous right now ahead of their showdown with Sale this weekend.
At the other end of the table, Quins did magnificently to go to the near- impenetrable fortress that is Franklin's Gardens and come away with a victory. It had looked like Northampton were building an unassailable lead at the top of the table and with games in hand but Quins finally found some form away from home. Saints remain in control of their own destiny with a couple of games in hand but I am sure all the chasing directors of rugby would prefer to have the points in the bag. Those games don't count for anything unless you win them.
At the mid-point of the season it makes sense to assess the state of play as a whole as we begin the run in to the business end of the season. Let's start at the top of the pile with Leicester. They have had their critics and have not performed to their usual standard but find themselves leading the table going into 2011. They have had to weather plenty of injuries and their away form has not been up to scratch but it is from this point that they normally raise their game. Saturday's match-up with the second-placed Saints at Welford Road was always going to be a pivotal clash and given the current league table it takes on even greater significance. Victory over their East Midlands rivals would not only delight the home fans but heap pressure on the Saints.
But there will be no panic from Northampton in the wake of their loss to Quins which I sense will be a one-off. In my mind they have been far and away the best team in the competition this season and fully deserve to be where they are. The only concern is the extra games they have to squeeze into a schedule that sees them competing on a number of fronts - but they still look destined to make the final.
It will be interesting to see how Saracens fare once Brendan Venter steps back from his director of rugby role. What they do from this point on will come under increased scrutiny with pundits, the press and fans set to ask the inevitable question - would that have happened if Venter was here?
It's quite nasty situation for a club to be in because they will no doubt feel that they are having to defend themselves all of the time. But they are still well-placed in the table and have some fantastic talent at their disposal. They have disappointed me this season as I don't think they have kicked on from last year and I just fear that teams are starting to work out how they play.
I have to take my hat off to Wasps because I was one of those questioning whether they would produce this season. I had suggested that they may be a group of talented individuals rather than a team but they have proved me wrong. The game against Leicester where they came back from a first half drubbing to beat the Tigers was a key turning point for them and there is evidently a lot of fight in this Wasps team.
London Irish will be desperate to kick the losing habit having slumped to nine defeats in a row with their loss to Bath last weekend. I can see them arresting their slide but I think it would take a monumental effort to get them back into the top four. It is not wholly unrealistic but they need to start winning again to restore their confidence. They need a moment of brilliance to turn things around because their rivals have the momentum right now.
Quins' victory over Northampton proves what a good side they can be but it was the manner of the win that will be most pleasing in a hard-fought and low-scoring game. The style they are trying to play still needs some work in terms of when to offload and when to keep hold of the ball and that may take some time to come together. Confidence is the key but there is no reason they can't find that before the end of the season.
Gloucester have shrugged off their critics this season and I do not expect them to slip into trouble over the coming months. They face Exeter this weekend and I must admit I like everything I have seen about the Chiefs. Sandy Park is a fantastic ground and the atmosphere for the game against Leicester was the best I have experienced all season.
They have lost the odd game by a big margin but have done really well to notch some victories and bag some bonus points. They play a simple style of rugby which I think has been Leeds' undoing this year. They fought for everything last year and have tried to be a bit more adventurous this year and it hasn't worked. Exeter do not chance their arm too much but fight for everything and I don't think I've seen a more committed team.
Bath will have set their sights on the play-offs at the start of the season but have been hugely disappointing. I don't think it will happen for them this year and if they finish where they are now then expect owner Bruce Craig to make some sweeping changes in the summer.
As mentioned, Newcastle will be feeling the pressure at the moment and they welcome Sale to Kingston Park for a crunch clash in front of the ESPN cameras on Friday night. Another victory for Sale would be huge in the basement battle but it is not an easy place to go and the Falcons can take heart from the fact that one good performance from Leeds does not guarantee them Premiership survival.
Leeds still look favourites to go down at the end of the season while I fancy Saracens and Harlequins to join Northampton and Leicester in the post-season mix.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
He teed up Obolensky's try, fought in Burma and played cricket for Warwickshire - we Rewind to look at the story of Peter Cranmer
With the World Cup just a year away, Tom Hamilton picks out five matches to ensure you have tickets for
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup