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Premiership Rugby

Half time in the Premiership

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

It's hard to believe but we have already reached the half-way mark of the 2003/4 Zurich Premiership league season.

With 11 games played and 11 to go, each club will now be tuning their engine for the exhausting race home.

And if the second half is as exciting as the first we are in for quite a show!

Who would have believed that Bath would be top of the pile at this point in proceedings?

Last season the club missed out on relegation on points difference, eight months on and they are 11 points clear of champions London Wasps and odds-on favourites to win the league. What I would do for a time machine, a bookie and a tenner!

Director of Rugby Jack Rowell said: “It has been a better than expected start to the season considering that there were wholesale changes at the club during the summer.  With 16 new players coming into the squad it has been incredible how quickly everyone has bonded as a team.”

Some blame the wildly unpredictable nature of this years competition on the absence of the World Cup stars, and yes, in some respects it has been a leveler.

The 12 Zurich Premiership clubs had a total of 55 players playing in the World Cup, with Leicester Tigers being the club most affected by events of Australia. The loss of eight players to national duty punctuated their perennial presence at the summit of the table and has left them languishing in 10th place.

But watch this space – Martin Johnson and company are now back and raring to get their beloved club up the league ladder.

The England skipper may have conquered the world but has he got what it takes to pull his club up by its boot straps and get them back above their arch-rivals Bath? Who knows? But it's just the sort of challenge old beetle-brow relishes, and – with the Tigers now 80/1 to top the table – it could be worth a flutter.

But the returning heroes would be wise to hold their horses. Many of the clubs faired perfectly well (if not better!) without their international stars, with young understudies not so much keeping places warm as sewing their names into their shirts.

Just take a look at Bath – they needed no help from the likes of  Mike Catt or Mike Tindall to get where they are today, and the RWC winners may not find the way back into their club XV as petal-strewn as they might have imagined.

Olly Barkley has more than filled the slot at fly-half left vacant by Catt's late England call-up and already has 167 points to his name this season, a figure that including four tries.

The tally leaves the young back – November's joint Zurich Player of the Month along with club-mate Steve Borthwick – second only to Shane Drahm of the Northampton Saints who is just two points ahead.

Drahm, incidentally, is wearing the shirt normally reserved for Paul Grayson, and you can be sure that the New Zealander will be unwilling to return it; nor does he deserve to.

Zurich champions London Wasps also had their fair share of top names missing but the chances are they will be celebrating Christmas in second place thanks to the mixture of old hands and eager youngster.

Other players to have shone in the absence of their elders include Ugo Moyne of NEC Harlequins who burst onto the scene with a furry of tries and has now cemented his place on the Quins' wing following the departure of Dan Luger to Perpignan.

Moyne is undoubtedly a name for the future, and the flyer was last seen lifting the IRB World Sevens trophy in George, South Africa.

Gloucester have had a so-so season so far, but the maturity shown by the likes of wing Marcus Garvey and loose forwards Andy Hazel and James Forester will be of benefit to the club for seasons to come.

Newcastle Falcons have, of course, missed the talents of Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half, but Dave Walder is no mean substitute.

Other young Falcon flyers who have found their wings despite the absence of their arch-conductor include the hugely impressive wing Michael Stephenson, the shrew Jamie Noon and the unstoppable Tom May who, with 8 touch-downs, is currently the league's top scorer.

I'm not saying there will be no place for Wilkinson on his return from injury, but he might not be as essential to the Falcons' cause as much of the world's media seems to suggest.

At Sale Sharks, Richard Wigglesworth stepped up his game in the absence of Byran Redpath and now represents a formidable challenge to the former Scotland captain.

Meanwhile, with the sun setting on many members of the England pack, the startling form of Chris Jones in Sale colours will give Clive Woodward and England fans reasons to be cheerful.

Rather than lamenting the loss of the big name leaders, all these players have taken advantage of the opportunity to step out of the shadows, to fronted up, and take on responsibilities themselves.

The first half of the season might have been tough and lonely, but the experience garnered will be of immense benefit to the whole of English rugby.

With this competition for places running parallel to the contest between clubs – not to mention the added obstacle of a pack of wounded Tigers lurking in the undergrowth – the run-in of the 2003/4 Zurich Premiership is set to the most exciting yet.

Wasps Director of Rugby Warren Gatland seems to agree: "This season, for me, is by far the best and most exciting as it’s become totally unpredictable. Sides that were battling relegation last season have become front-runners and now are in strong position to contest the title. If the second half of the season is anything like the first, the fans are in for a rugby feast”.

He is not wrong and you'd be mad to miss it.

By Andy Jackson

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