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Battles of will and nerve in tightest contest

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It is often repeated that the competition gets tighter and tougher every season, but this year seems an odd one even by Aviva Premiership standards.

Last weekend, Worcester Warriors had a last-minute penalty – awarded in the act of scoring a try that brought them to within a point of visitors Northampton Saints – which could have inflicted a fifth defeat of the season on Jim Mallinder’s men. Instead, the kick was missed and the win went to Saints who drew level on points with fourth-placed Tigers. If the kick had gone over, Warriors would have been within one bonus-point win of the Tigers. Saints would have been ninth.
On the same night, Bath went top of the table with a win over Bristol. Although not at their best for the derby night at The Rec, Bath came through and have lost just once so far in the league – at Welford Road back in September.
In contrast, their old West Country rivals Gloucester had won just once in the opening seven rounds and would have kicked off on Saturday second from bottom of the pile if that Warriors penalty had gone over at Sixways. But Gloucester then went out and scored a bonus-point win over Wasps at Kingsholm, igniting fresh talk of turning corners and chasing the eight teams still above them in the table.
Exeter Chiefs, meanwhile, were as good as written off by many on the sidelines in the early weeks of the campaign and have since been in the news more for their rumoured transfer targets (Ben Morgan, Matt Kvesic and Ruan Pienaar to name just three in speculation so far) than their form on the pitch. Largely unnoticed, they were up to fourth place before Tigers kicked off in Round 8 on Sunday.
Harlequins, under new management this season, would have leapfrogged Tigers in the table with a victory at Welford Road on Sunday. They went home empty-handed and Tigers returned to fourth place where they have spent much of the season so far.
The middle six teams in the table – from Leicester in fourth to Gloucester in ninth – are still separated by just six points at a stage of the season when clubs are missing their international players and the rigours of the opening two months are starting to take a toll in terms of fitness and form.
More than ever it seems this may be a season to hold your nerve while all around lose theirs.