By Olly Santini
As the autumn internationals draw to a close all attention shifts back towards the Gallagher Premiership and European Cups.
England had an impressive autumn, much better than anyone expected four weeks ago, but will rue missed chances and losing out to marginal decisions against New Zealand.
Now all eyes will be on the Premiership, and this season represents the last chance for any hopefuls to prove to Eddie Jones why they should be included in the Six Nations, and more importantly the squad for the World Cup in Japan in September.
At the top of the pile, all is looking very familiar.
Saracens have looked very impressive in their eight wins, failing to secure a try bonus point on only two occasions.
Their victories have been mostly convincing, and when at a full complement they’ve only really looked under real pressure once: at The Stoop in October.
New signings Alex Lewington, and the returning David Strettle have settled in quickly and scored tries.
The table is starting to look like a two horse race, but there are still two play-off places up for grabs
With Owen Farrell pulling the strings behind a dominant pack featuring Maro Itoje, Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers, we could be waiting a while for Saracens first defeat of the Premiership season.
Level on points with Saracens are Exeter. Again they look to have picked up where they left off last season, scoring tries at will, with lots coming from last season’s medical joker turned signing Santiago Cordero.
Henry Slade has been very impressive, and Gareth Steenson seems to have regained the fly-half jersey he lost towards the end of last season.
With three of England’s four props from the autumn internationals, and back row options of Armand, Ewers, Kvesic and Simmonds, the Chiefs are looking as strong as ever, and almost nailed on for the semi-finals come May.
The table is starting to look like a two horse race, but there are still two play-off places up for grabs.
At the moment Wasps and Gloucester are occupying those spaces. Wasps haven’t looked like the same side they were last season.
Their defence has looked porous, and they have suffered big home defeats to Gloucester and Exeter.
Lima Sopoaga hasn’t been able to fill the gap left by Danny Cipriani yet, and therefore their devastating attack hasn’t reached the same heights.
However, with five wins from eight, and the likes of Elliot Daly and Willie le Roux returning after the autumn, Wasps are still well placed going into the European break.
Gloucester sit a solitary point behind Wasps in fourth. This is familiar territory for them, having occupied a play-off spot for much of last season before falling away in the latter stages.
Danny Cipriani has shown what he can add to an attack, and Gloucester have produced impressive performances to put away Wasps at the Ricoh and Leicester at Kingsholm.
However, performances like the home defeat by ‘Quins will need to be eradicated by Johan Ackermann if they are to mount a serious challenge.
Behind that, there are only eight points separating the remaining eight teams in the league, headed by Harlequins. Paul Gustard has certainly made a difference, especially in defence, where they’ve conceded the second fewest tries behind Exeter.
‘Quins have produced performances that will encourage him greatly, such as the win at Gloucester, or a very physical performance where they outplayed Saracens for the majority of a 25-20 loss.
However, they have looked very ordinary in other games, such as defeats to Worcester and Bath.
Leicester’s form doesn’t seem to have changed under a new coach, currently on a run of five defeats, and having lost at home to Worcester at Welford Road earlier in the season.
The return of Telusa Veainu will be a huge boost for the East Midlands side to sure up a full back position that has lacked consistency this season.
Behind them Worcester and Bath are tied up with three wins apiece. Both have produced strong performances, away at Leicester and Quins respectively, but have also struggled for consistency, especially for Bath who have the potential to challenge at the top of the table.
Bristol have looked more competitive than any newly promoted side
Northampton have struggled this season, and don’t seem to have improved much since Jim Mallinder’s dismissal last term.
The return of Dan Biggar from Wales duty will prove crucial as to whether they can turn their season around, and with Taqele Naiyaravoro on the wing he certainly has the weapons to do so.
Towards the bottom of the table, Sale were a team that promised so much before the start of the season.
A backline including Faf de Klerk, Chris Ashton and Denny Solomona shouldn’t be scoring as few points as they are, yet they’ve scored the fewest tries (16) in the entire league.
Bristol are well behind Pat Lam’s pre-season ambition to qualify for the Champions Cup, but this always seemed over-ambitious.
Bristol have looked more competitive than any newly promoted side and, with the return of Charles Piutau, seem best placed to break the yo-yo tradition in recent years.
Newcastle, last season’s surprise package, prop up the Gallagher Premiership table.
However, they’ve already played the other three teams who finished in the top four last season, and fifth placed Leicester.
Based on their European Cup for which has seen two victories over French giants Toulon and Montpellier, and with Kingston Park being a notoriously hard place to go and win, Newcastle should be able to avoid the relegation struggle.
But, if Dean Richards’ men continue to falter into the New Year and the likes of Bristol and Worcester continue to pick up wins, they may have some catching up to do to avoid their first season in the Championship since 2012-13.
Photograph: ‘Oatsy40’ Via Flickr