The 2016/17 Premiership season is over, bar the playoff shouting. James Harrington runs the rule over the 12 clubs’ campaigns.
Yes, there are three matches left before Saracens* are crowned Premiership champions again, but now the regular campaign is over, it’s time to issue those end-of-season report cards, in table-finishing order…
Five seasons ago, Wasps avoided relegation by the skin of a Tom Varndell tackle, and bankruptcy by the width of a crisp new £5 note. Now, they finish the regular season at the head of the table, beat the defending champions at their relatively new home in front of more than 30,000 fans – and they are even starting to add some defensive devil to their attacking dare. This is the new Wasps, nothing like the old Wasps.
The RFU will be watching Exeter coach Rob Baxter, with one eye on the England job which is due to become vacant after the 2019 World Cup. Finishing the season with eight maximum-point wins and nine try bonus points in their last nine outings tells you what they’re all about. Only the rugby gods know how good they could be when everything clicks and they have a full complement of players to choose from.
From the outside looking in, self-belief is often mistaken for arrogance – and the fact that Saracens rested plenty of first-choice players, including five Lions, for their final round trip to Wasps smacks of the latter. But the fact is they don’t care where they play, and that is all because they have boatloads of the former. They have Clermont in the Champions Cup final in Edinburgh next week, and Exeter at Sandy Park in the Premiership semi-final the week after. It will be a stupidly brave punter who bets against them winning both matches, then going on to lift the domestic title at Twickenham against either Wasps or Leicester. But, most likely, Wasps.
Amid backroom carnage, Leicester still managed to make the Premiership play-offs for the 13th straight season. And that needs to be recognised. But they’re are not the perennial champions-elect anymore. And they should recognise that. New head coach Matt O’Connor arrived in April after the Tigers dumped their second head coach of the season. But his work really starts at the end of the season.
Yes, Bath are in next season’s Champions Cup. And, yes, they can point out that injuries have played merry hell with their season – but all is not entirely well at the Rec, and Todd Blackadder will have his hands full working to ensure that the quo’s status is much improved next season.
A mixed bag from Quins, who could hit the heights of their match against Wasps and the plumb the depths of their performance against Exeter in a matter of weeks – but there’s plenty of promise from the London side. And the signs are promising of more to come, as they return to the Champions Cup after a season away. But they’ll have to do it without either of the Nick Es – Evans and Easter – who called time on their careers during this campaign.
The cruellest of positions for the Saints, after the cruellest of final weekend matches. Seventh means no automatic Champions Cup place, but the possibility of a shot at a playoff, if Top 14 side Stade Francais beat Gloucester in Friday’s Challenge Cup final. In truth, it’s about the best Northampton deserve after a season in which their attempts at flattering to deceive flattered to deceive.
When eighth out of 12 is a sign of progress, you know things haven’t been great at Kingston Park. Eighth is the Falcons’ best finish since 2006, and the first time they have finished outside the bottom two since they returned to the Premiership following a year-long Championship hiatus in 2012/13. But, in getting to eighth, they played some seriously good rugby. And their signings for next season suggest more serious rugby is on the cards. This may be just the start of something.
The Cherry-and-Whites now are where Saracens were in 2009. With the prospect of added Challenge Cup gilt to hide the problems. But they were the first visiting team to win at La Rochelle since, well, forever, and that man Johan Ackermann is on his way. Beating Stade Francais in Friday’s Challenge Cup final in Edinburgh will give Gloucester an unlikely route into next season’s Champions Cup. Whether that would actually be the right place for the club right now remains to be seen.
The Champions Cup was a competition too far for Sale this season, as they struggled for large portions of the campaign on not one but two fronts. For a brief period, they even risked being sucked into the relegation dogfight. It’s to their credit that they duked their way out of it, but Steve Diamond will expect better next season.
No lack of effort this season from the grandly named Warriors, certainly not after Gary Gold arrived in January. And they could – on occasion – be inspired. But such moments were nowhere near enough to hide the fact that they were generally struggling up front. Gold will have to work hard over the summer break to build a functioning pack around prop Nick Schonert and old-timer Donncha O’Callaghan that will be worthy of the Warriors name.
Megarich owner Steve Lansdown admitted recently that the other clubs in the Premiership were ‘miles ahead’ of Bristol this year. He’s right. He has also said he should have acted earlier. That would have made no difference. It’s not entirely their fault, but they struggled to reach the standards necessary for this class of rugby. A short spell in a newly playoff-free Championship to allow those big-name signings to bed should mean they’re better prepared the season after next when they, inevitably, return.
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