NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND – The eleventh round of fixtures marks the halfway point of the Aviva Premiership season and represents an opportunity for some self-reflection during this holiday season. As such, let’s take a look at each side’s resolutions as 2013 draws to a close in our Aviva Premiership Weekend Preview.
Saracens: The London side really couldn’t ask for much more out of the season thus far after having collected nine wins from ten matches thus far, including last weekend’s impressive romp against Leicester. Sarries will resolve to stay strong through the Six Nations, when they will surely be missing key playmakers such as Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton, and the Vunipola brothers. They’ll want to avoid a repeat of last year’s semi-final collapse, and maintain focus well into the new year.
Northampton: The Saints locked up some of their star players to extended deals this week, as Ben Foden signed an extension to stay at Franklin Gardens for at least another few years. Northampton will resolve to integrate winger George North into their attack better. Though the Welsh winger has impressed in flashes, both he and the Saints need more consistency to assure themselves of a repeat appearance in the 2014 final.
Bath: Possibly the surprise story of the 2013 season thus far, Bath have arrived as true contenders a year early. Though a new ground may have been on the Christmas wish list, Bath will have to make do with the Rec as they have for the past hundred years (or so it seems). The club will want to protect young fly-half George Ford, who continues to impress, from over-exertion. As many baseball clubs have found out to their cost, bringing young players along too quickly and exposing them too much, too soon can lead to injury. Bath will want to avoid that fate for their future star.
Harlequins: The Quins have had a mixed bag of a season, struggling early on before finding form. Much like their London neighbors, the team will have to cope with the absence of talismanic players, including club and country captain Chris Robshaw. Luke Wallace will have to continue his ascent to the next level, and Nick Evans will be forced to guide the team through a difficult last third of the schedule safely. Harelquins must resolve to take maximum points from lower sides in the table: they’ve slipped up against inferior competition too often in the past, and it cost them late last season when they were forced to travel to Welford Road for their semi-final.
Exeter: The Chiefs have come along nicely, continuing to make Sandy Park a difficult place for visitors to play. For Exeter to make it to the next level of competition however, they will have to improve their away form, both domestically and in European competition. With only one win in four from the Heineken Cup, Exeter are probably looking at another early exit, but they can resolve to give a good showing in the next round against Glasgow and play spoiler, while setting themselves up for a potential showdown for fourth place with Harlequins and Bath.
Leicester: The Tigers have been hard hit by injuries, and their form in the Premiership has suffered as a result. Though the East Midlands club has a reputation as late starters, their faithful fans know that someday the side will leave it too late for another great escape into the playoffs. Anything less than a championship is considered a failure at Welford Road, and therefore the Tigers must resolve to secure a playoff spot at all costs.
Sale Sharks: The Sharks probably lack the squad depth to compete for a playoff spot in the final month of the season. Given the uncertainty about England’s situation within European competition next season, they may be placed in the unique position of finishing sixth and having nothing to show for it. However, the Sharks must soldier on in the face of adversity and do their best to ensure that resurgent fly-half Danny Cipriani is in the running for a return to the England side, a result which can only come about if Sale continue to win a respectable percentage of their games.
London Wasps: It may be a bit of a lost season for the Wasps, who have not improved in the expected manner after the excitement provided by their fleet footed wing duo last season. Both Tom Varndell and Christian Wade have been injured for extended periods of time, robbing the team of their greatest attacking threats. However, the club must find a way to fight on, and return to the exciting style of rugby that made them every neutral’s favorite in 2012-13. Resolving to return to that aggressive style of play could win them many fans, a particularly important point as the club continues to struggle to attract spectators to Adams Park.
Gloucester: The season has been little short of an unmitigated disaster for the Cherry and Whites, who began with dreams of a playoff spot and now sit mired in a relagation dogfight. The West Country outfit resolves to play up to their potential, with formerly bright stars such as Matt Kvesic and Freddie Burns setting aside distractions and playing the rugby that brought them into Stuart Lancaster’s consciousness in the first place.
Newcastle Falcons: Many pundits (including myself) didn’t give the Falcons much of a fighting chance at the beginning of the season. However, on the back of strong home form, they have played much better than anticipated and sit perched in tenth place. The Falcons resolve to continue doing what they have done: win at home, pick up a few losing bonus points on the road, and remain in the Premiership next year.
London Irish: For the second consecutive year, London Irish find themselves at the foot of the table. Despite new investment by Irish businessmen, the signing of James O’Connor, and the greatest number of losing bonus points in the league (4) the side continue to struggle. The Irish must resolve to stay up at all costs, ensuring that their new ownership can sign the players to make this once great side competitive once more.
Worcester: The saddest of all the teams in the Premiership, the holiday season has brought no joy to the Warriors. Their New Year’s resolution is simplest of all: win a game, any game, before the season is out.
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