The signing of Lozowski has proved to be an inspired move by Saracens

The Contenders

So comfortable at the head of the pack. They lost their world-class second row of Maro Itoje and George Kruis in October and now have to make do without both Vunipola brothers, yet they have the depth to cope. Michael Rhodes stepped up from back row to lock and no one blinked (and it helps if you can sign Will Skelton, the giant Australian lock). Alex Lozowski, the young fly half, has been the signing of the season.
Unsung hero Michael Rhodes
Prediction A big surprise if they are not finalists
Mark 8/10


Wasps still have Haskell to be added to the line-upJOE GIDDENS/PA

This had appeared to be a rebuilding season in which the loss of George Smith and two Piutaus — Charles and Siale — would hurt, yet never did they take one step back. Note: when Wasps met Saracens in October, they were properly outclassed, but the speed with which they have gelled is notable and they still have James Haskell and Willie le Roux to be added to the line-up.
Unsung hero Guy Thompson
Prediction Finalists
Mark 8/10

We have three “contenders” here and Bath are very much third of the three. Yet they could cause an end-of-season upset and claim the honours. The clubs beneath them are so inconsistent this year that Bath should definitely make the final four, so they just need to peak in May. They have hit recent heights with the significant international class of Taulupe Faletau, Francois Louw and Luke Charteris barely involved.
Unsung hero Matt Garvey
Prediction Losing semi-finalists
Mark 7/10

Mid-table mediocrity
Exeter Chiefs

Chiefs fans will regard it as harsh to give them the “mediocrity” label, but just rewind a few weeks and you know it is well earned. They are, though, the team who have changed the most: from their stifled, stuttering September to the team of the past month, who are far more recognisable. Smashing Leicester Tigers on Christmas Eve was the real statement, and they now have Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Don Armand fit again.
Unsung hero Gareth Steenson
Prediction Punching hard but losing semi-finalists
Mark 6/10


Leicester Tigers
Desperately unlucky with injuries and short of consistency, confidence and momentum. It is when the picture could hardly look any bleaker and reports appear that jobs are on the line that they dig out a victory, but they struggle to back up any good-news win with another. So unfortunate that their superstar signing, Matt Toomua, was ruled out for the rest of the season, yet that does not mask their deeper issues.
Unsung hero Mathew Tait
Prediction Will do well to hold on to their fifth position
Mark 5/10

With so many traditionally strong rivals struggling, they should really be making the most of the opportunity. However, they are as they have been for three seasons: agonisingly inconsistent, capable of beating the best (Saracens — again) and incapable of a run of results (come on — you can’t beat Bath and then lose to Newcastle). It won’t help that they will lose their traditional army of international players to the Six Nations, but they should be setting their sights on Exeter and fourth place.
Unsung hero Tim Visser
Prediction Fighting for Europe rather than the play-offs
Mark 5/10

Picamoles, centre, has stood firm as his Northampton team-mates have crumbled

Northampton Saints
The signing of Louis Picamoles was supposed to be the catalyst for a title challenge, not the glue to stop the team falling apart. There appear to be real problems at this club. Releasing backs coach Alex King was an empty gesture that achieved nothing — especially when it was followed a few weeks later with the acknowledgement that recruitment in the backs had been neglected.
Unsung hero Mike Haywood
Prediction Slipping out of the Champions Cup
Mark 3/10

The names on the roster indicate a team with vast potential who are nowhere near fulfilling that. Rumours abound about discord in the coaching team, and it is not as though they are greatly hampered by international call-ups. The latest attempt to awaken the old sleeping giant is not working and, if this continues, it would be a surprise if there were not significant changes at the end of the season.
Unsung hero John Afoa
Prediction Same old disappointment
Mark 4/10

The end game
Newcastle Falcons

Dean Richards has promised this for a couple of seasons, and now he has delivered: a team doing something other than fighting relegation. They are now four points off a place in the Champions Cup and miles off Bristol at the bottom. They will do well to continue to defy expectation yet they have a hardness that makes Kingston Park a tough place to go.
Unsung hero Mark Wilson
Prediction Keep on taking big scalps
Mark 7/10

Sale need to recruit hard and a good place to start would be Bath’s George Ford, centre

Sale Sharks
Not quite the force of last season, not so strong at home and not quite so capable of claiming big scalps; probably what we are seeing is what Danny Cipriani brought them, because direction at No 10 and the occasional flash of brilliance have been missing. Sale need to stop the annual leak of talent and recruit hard. A good place to start would be George Ford, who remains linked to the club.
Unsung hero Cameron Neild
Prediction Holding on for next season
Mark 5/10

Worcester Warriors
Started brightly with two draws and a win in their first five games and it seemed they might leave Bristol for dead. However, results have since eluded them and the manner of their failure against Bristol on Monday, when they weren’t able to turn over a 14 men, suggests that they are now in for a long relegation battle.
Unsung hero Jamie Shillcock
Prediction Fighting relegation until the last
Mark 5/10

Such a soap opera this season — a series of painful thumpings and then the sacking of Andy Robinson, the director of rugby. It was a gamble that seems, thus far, to have paid off. Bristol are now consistently competitive and the win over Worcester on Monday may be the turning point. One or two quality signings, even on short-term contracts, could make the difference between survival and relegation.
Unsung hero Will Hurrell
Prediction Fighting relegation until the last
Mark 4/10

Aviva Premiership

Pos Logo &Team P W D L -/+ BP Pts
1 SaracensSaracens 11 9 0 2 161 6 42
2 WaspsWasps 11 9 0 2 128 6 42
3 BathBath 11 8 0 3 86 4 36
4 ExeterExeter 11 6 1 4 92 9 35
5 LeicesterLeicester 11 7 0 4 30 3 31
6 HarlequinsHarlequins 11 6 0 5 -27 3 27
7 NorthamptonNorthampton 11 5 0 6 -3 4 24
8 GloucesterGloucester 11 3 2 6 7 8 24
9 NewcastleNewcastle 11 5 0 6 -85 3 23
10 SaleSale 11 3 1 7 -73 4 18
11 WorcesterWorcester 11 1 2 8 -146 2 10
12 BristolBristol 11 1 0 10 -170 4 8