The unsung heroes at Sixways
January 3, 2013
Andy Goode has been a key player in Worcester's season so far © PA Photos
When it came to dishing out the mid-season Oscars, London Welsh deserved all they got after confounding pretty much everybody but themselves over the first half of the Aviva Premiership season.
As we enter the second stage of the campaign though - the bit that will take us through the darkest depths of January to the promise of the summer to come in May - it might be time to doff our woolly hats in Worcester's general direction as well.
The Warriors have been going about their business with such quiet effectiveness that, for the first time in a long time, it seems almost certain the concluding months of the season will not be wrapped up with relegation fears. They have already gathered a healthy 25 points and are closing in on the 36 that were more than enough to preserve a Premiership status that had been won back the year before.
The bulk of those points have been won in familiar surroundings at Sixways. Should that home form continue against Leicester this weekend then those who study the mathematics of relegation will tell you just a couple more wins from the remaining nine games should see them safe.
Head coach Richard Hill began the new season full of hope and while he will accept there is work to do before they can contemplate top six finishes and mixing it with the continent's elite in the Heineken Cup, he reckons the club have never had a better squad or been in a better position to take the next step.
There are few people in rugby you could wish to spend a more instructive half hour with. A man who is constantly thinking of new ways to play the game, to freshen things up, to challenge his players. When he talks, he talks with a lucidity befitting one of the sport's brightest minds.
Worcester invested well during the close-season. Dean Schofield was tempted back to the Premiership to captain the side after a couple of years with Toulon. Paul Hodgson, David Lemi and Nikki Walker added know-how to a back-line that had been seriously short of tries. Jon Clarke and Josh Matavesi would lend a hand to Alex Grove in midfield after Dale Rasmussen finally called time.
One of their cannier signings was a Tongan back rower very few had heard of before he pitched-up in the West Midlands. Semisi Taulava served his time in the Championship before the Warriors spotted another like Blair Cowan and Sam Betty who could comfortably negotiate the change of power and pace.
Hill also re-stocked his backroom staff. After Phil Davies returned to Wales, former Bath and England lock Nigel Redman was given charge of the forwards, while World Cup winner Phil Vickery was invited to pour his scrummaging knowledge into the pot.
The appointment of a Frenchman was perhaps the most significant though. The previous season they had not scored anywhere near enough tries for a club of their ambition, so attack guru Mathieu Rourre was persuaded to divide his time between the Biarritz academy and Sixways.
The first thing he did was tell players to stay on their feet. If they wanted to score more tries then they had to spend more time off the ground and offering a threat. Last season they mustered a measly 23 during the whole campaign. A little over halfway through this one and they're already up to 19.
In recent years, a Warriors defence expertly built by Phil Larder had become one of the most parsimonious in the Premiership. Now they also had somebody to cultivate a greater threat with the ball in hand and a much-needed offensive dimension.
Quite how much time Rourre has for his English job at the moment remains a moot point. When Biarritz sacked Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas last month, he and Laurent Rodriguez were put in temporary charge. Worcester are resigned to seeing precious little of him this month, but they should be comforted to know they are now picking the brains of one of Europe's best minds in a continuing quest to become one of Europe's best teams. Relegation fodder? Not this year.
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Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN