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Premiership Rugby

Absence makes the heart grow fonder?

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

World Cup? What World Cup? Is there really any point getting up early to watch yet another poor fledgling rugby-nation get hopelessly outgunned in Australia when there is quality rugby being churned out right on our door steps?

Well alright, may be there is some reason, it is the World Cup after all.

But six rounds into the Zurich Premiership season and the excitement continues to build, the turn-stiles continue to spin and the tries keep raining down.

Whilst football's FA Premiership trudging along to its usual conclusion, the Zurich Premiership has thrown up heaps of surprises and has played host to a huge number of closely fought contests.

Of the 36 games played so far, 15 have ended with only a single score separating the sides at the final whistle.

So, if you're in the mood for some heart-in-mouth weekend entertainment, look no further than the Sale Sharks. Their fans have seen their club (chronologically) draw, lose by one point, lose by 5, win by 6, lose by 4, before finally managing to put 14 on Rotherham.

But if it's the roller-coast ride you are looking for, join the Exiles' faithful who have seen London Irish lose, win, lose,  win, win, lose.

And if you like your brain-benders, check this one out: Gloucester beat NEC Harlequins who beat the Newcastle Falcons who beat Gloucester.

And just look at those standings.

Bath, who escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth in the previous two seasons, are presently unbeaten and sit at the top of the pile.

Quins, the perennial underachievers of English rugby, have only lost one game thus far.

Meanwhile, mighty Leicester sit in tenth place, just one place above those big Saracen stars.

It all seems to be happening in the Zurich Premiership this season, but the burning question is why?

The easy theory is that the absence of the World Cup stars has left a vacuum where up is down and where winners lose, but the  evidence suggests otherwise.

National duty has, with the odd exception, struck most of the clubs pretty evenly, with no one team suffering an inordinate number of player losses.

Only the Tigers have grounds to rue international selection decisions after five of their first-choice forwards were whisked away Down Under.

But if Welford Road is good for anything it is for producing forwards, and their youngsters have the ability and the opportunity to step up into the breech.

They performed well against a strong Newcastle Falcon pack and, under the tutelage of All Black legend Josh Kronfeld, they should be more than capable of holding the fort until the cavalry return.

But beyond their loss of forward power, the Tigers have had all their backs at their disposal, including Austin Healey and Ramiro Pez who were both unlucky not to get the nod for World Cup duty. They are supported by the likes of former All Black Daryl Gibson, Leon Lloyd and Ollie Smith so they should be running in the tries – but they are not. 

Champions Wasps are also having trouble to impose themselves in the manner that they did towards the end of last season. 

They seem to pine for the missing few instead of getting down to the task in hand with the help of their world-class performers like Rob Howley, Craig Dowd, Simon Shaw and Trevor Leota – but they don't seem to have the will.

Gloucester, so intent on making up for that loss in the Play-Off final last season, have stuttered into their stride even though they got off relatively lightly in the World Cup stakes.

The likes of Andy Gomarsall, Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery are big losses, but three or four players don't make a team. On paper they should be running away with it now, using the likes of Jake Boer, James Simpson-Daniel and Junior Paramore to punish lesser teams – but they haven't.

It would be convenient to put early season jitters down to the shortage of key players but it just doesn't rub. Look at London Irish, no World Cup selectors came calling during the season but yet they are still struggling with form and sit seventh.

Big-name absences can't explain away the fall of the mighty this season, each of the 12 Zurich Premiership sides have enough strength in depth to cover their holes. The real difference so far this year has one of mental application and team spirit.

Take a look at the teams that presently sit on the shoulders of the Zurich giants. There in second spot are the Quins – minus key men like Will Greenwood, Paul Burke and Jason Leonard but still upsetting form-books everywhere. 

And just look at Bath, the loss of many of their number hasn't fazed them one inch, on the contrary – Messrs Catt, Tindall, Maggs, Danielli, Balshaw and Grewcock might not find the road back to the Rec as petal-strewn as they would have imagined.

The tables have turned; it is those that struggled last year that are the ones that now find themselves in the role of league bullies.

Many lessons were learnt during last season's relegation battle, with the overiding one being the need for strong team spirit that the struggle nutured within the survivors.

The experience of being within touching distance of the black-hole down which the Bristol Shoguns disappeared has galvanised the likes of Bath and Quins and has given them a renewed belief in the team over certain star individuals.

Those that are winning this season are the ones who had their resolve tested as a collective last year. In the scrap to avoid the drop the realisation dawned on them that big names can't help you out of a hole without a little help from the rest of  the group, and the players have learnt to rely on no one but themselves.

That lesson has served them well so far this season, and will soon be learnt by the traditional powers of the Zurich Premiership who will find that choosing to tread water until your saviour turns up is a potentially fatal business.

By Andy Jackson


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