Sarra Elgan Column
Hold on to your hats
February 21, 2013
Will Christian Wade and his Wasps team-mates hold onto their place for the Premiership play-offs? © Getty Images
This is my favourite time of the domestic season. Not only do we have the razzmatazz of the Six Nations as a backdrop but what happens in February and March more often than not gives us a pretty good indication of who's going to end up where come May.
The international stars might be away plying their trade for their respective nations but this is this is the most crucial time of the season for their clubs. It's ironic that when their employers need them the most they're elsewhere. And it's at this stage you often see clubs that supply the international soldiers suffer themselves on the battlefield. "We may have lost the battle but not the war" is a line I often hear from coaches in post match interviews but at this stage of the season it's winning these battles that ensure they will still have a war to fight at the end of the season.
As the Six Nations kicked off, the highflyers at the top end of the table certainly appeared to miss their big names. Saracens lost to relegation fodder London Irish, Leicester looked out of sorts against London Welsh, Harlequins lost at The Stoop to a rejuvenated London Wasps, and the least said about Northampton's efforts against Gloucester at Franklins Gardens the better. Sarries, Tigers, Saints and Quins are the teams that supply more players than anyone to England coach Stuart Lancaster so it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they all stuttered.
This week we saw a drip feed of players return to the Premiership in what was a rest week for the Six Nations and they made a huge difference to their teams performance - none more so than Danny Care (Quins) and Mako Vunipola (Saracens). Care was superb against Leicester on Saturday with his moment of brilliance being the difference between winning and losing. Add that to Mako's brace of tries against Exeter and you see why these players are so crucial to the success of their teams.
While it may appear that Sarries, Quins and Leicester will be in that top four when it matters most, the final semi-final spot is very much 'up for grabs'. Wasps, Gloucester, Northampton and even Bath are all candidates and with three of that four not disrupted greatly during this international window it is no surprise that they have raised their game and profited over the last fortnight.
We've covered a number of Wasps games recently and I really enjoy the way they're going about their business this term. I love their story and think they thoroughly deserve to be in the mix. What Dai Young has done with that squad after a disastrous season, both on and off the field, last year is inspirational. They were at the lowest point in the clubs long and illustrious history 12 months ago - staring championship rugby or at worst extinction directly in the face and to rise like they have this season, playing some great rugby in the process is a joy to see.
And with the announcement of a mysterious new backer (labelled "Mr. X" by Dai Young when we spoke last week) imminent they are back in the game. If I was a betting man my money would be on them taking that 4th spot but of course I'm not that brave - or a man.
In the bottom half of the table there is an understandable sense of urgency at this time of year. Teams know that time is running out and none more so than Sale whose fortunes seem to have changed somewhat of late. They are now on a four-match winning run in all competitions and finally seem to be playing as a team with Daniel Braid having made a huge impact. After managing only one Premiership win up until a fortnight ago, they've now won their last two - against Exeter and crucially against London Welsh - who have now been well and truly pulled into that relegation battle. I fear for Lyn Jones' men in this final part of the season after doing do well early on with some big results and valiant losses. They must face Exeter, Saracens, Gloucester and Bath all away from home before the end of the season and I fear that after a promising start they may struggle to keep their head above relegation water.
One thing is for sure and that is that this league is as tight as it's ever been with teams leapfrogging, nudging and barging each other out of the way in their attempts to climb up the table. It looks as though only Exeter can be assured of mid-table mediocrity with the fate of the rest undecided - so hold on to your hats, it's going to be a very interesting run in.
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Sarra Elgan is a roving reporter for ESPN