Although it hasn’t seemed to be in doubt this season, the trips of Gloucester and Northampton Saints to the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals only served to reinforce that English rugby’s duopoly is still in fine shape.
Saracens and Exeter Chiefs have dominated the competition in recent years and despite encouraging regular seasons from both Gloucester and Northampton Saints, there was little they could do to stop the two powerhouses in the crunch knockout fixtures.
It was, in all honesty, a weekend of déjà vu for the Premiership, which has seen a number of unsuccessful challengers come and go since the rise to prominence of these two teams.
Whether it was perennial contenders Leicester Tigers falling down the table, Bath’s diminishment, Wasps’ recent surge and plummet or even Newcastle Falcons‘ fairytale trip to the playoffs last season, before facing relegation this campaign, any and all pretenders to the throne has swiftly fallen away.
With that and the seemingly unscalable heights to which Exeter and Saracens have risen in mind, what happened on Saturday is not even close to surprising.
Gloucester raced into a 7-0 lead at Allianz Park, but it all went downhill from there. Saracens stepped up their game, won the physical arm wrestle on the gain-line, dominated the aerial contest and proceeded to suck the life out of the Cherry and Whites, scoring a number of excellent tries en route to a 44-19 victory.
Saints, meanwhile, gave Exeter all they could cope with in the first half at Sandy Park, and a 14-12 half-time deficit was inches away from being 14-19 lead for the visitors. True to form, however, Exeter sharpened up and moved through the gears after the interval, with two early tries sucker-punching Northampton and allowing the hosts to cruise through the final 30 minutes. They booked their place at Twickenham next week with a comfortable 42-12 win.
For these semi-finals not to be another frustrating story of ever-increasing disparity between Saracens and Exeter and the rest of the Premiership, both Gloucester and Northampton need to consolidate what they have begun to build this season, something that the likes of Bath and Wasps have been unable to do. Catching Saracens and Exeter with knockout blows is the long-term goal, but they simply have to stay in the fight and keep jabbing away in the short-term, testing the guard of those two finalists.
Every year the same lines come out about the other sides in the playoff mix, that they’re on a journey and they’ll be back and better than before, but very rarely does that hold true six or seven months down the road. That is something the Premiership ideally would like to change this summer.
Gloucester have come a long way in a short time under Johan Ackermann’s tutelage and having inked Danny Cipriani to a new long-term contract this season should allow them the consistency to continue to develop, something which escaped Wasps when they let the fly-half go. He will reunite with former Wasps teammate Joe Simpson next season, with Gloucester in essence trading Ben Vellacott to the Coventry-based club in return.
Aside from that move, the Cherry and Whites will be largely unchanged next season in terms of senior recruitment, giving them fluency going into the next campaign, as well as creating an opportunity for youngsters in the club’s senior academy to put their hands up for further involvement.
One of the major strengths of Gloucester this season has been their midfield, with Cipriani, Mark Atkinson and Billy Twelvetrees all continuing into 2019/20, and their lack of international representation, relative to the other teams at the top of the Premiership, should help them survive the effects of a Rugby World Cup-impacted season.
There’s an outside chance that Cipriani, Ben Morgan and Ollie Thorley could somehow work their way into Eddie Jones’ plans, whilst Franco Mostert and possibly Jaco Kriel could be involved with South Africa. Jake Polledri will, fitness-permitting, be in Japan with Italy, but it’s a much kinder outlook than many other Premiership teams will be facing. That’s not necessarily going to improve their fortunes in the one-off knockout fixtures at the end of the season, but it should help them start the Premiership season strongly, build some momentum and, ideally, book a home semi-final at the end of the campaign.
The young front row trio of Alex Seville, Henry Walker and Ciaran Knight all move from senior academy deals to senior contracts this summer and if one or two of them can make the leap and help out at the scrum, where Gloucester have been tested a number of times this season, that will only further help cement the West Country side’s place in the top four.
As for Northampton, they have taken a slightly different approach, opting to bolster with a number of new signings.
Matt Proctor is set to arrive from Boyd’s former side, the Hurricanes, whilst Owen Franks, an All Blacks centurion in the front row, is set to join his older brother at Franklin’s Gardens. Combined with the incumbents at their respective positions, Rory Hutchinson and Paul Hill, and the up and coming talents in the squad, Fraser Dingwall and Ehren Painter, Boyd will enjoy greater depth and competition in his side next season.
Saints have profited this season from the tempo and width of their attacking game, something which they will be hopeful of further enhancing and refining next season, with integral players such as Cobus Reinach, Dan Biggar, Piers Francis and Taqele Naiyaravoro all under contract for another campaign.
Another year of growth in the likes of Hutchinson, Painter, Lewis Ludlam, Alex Mitchell and the lock duo of Alex Moon and Alex Coles will be another source of optimism. If their development coupled with the arrival of Franks and Proctor can help boost Northampton’s work at the set-piece and maintain and improve the club’s ability play at tempo and break the gain-line, they will have a good chance of retaining their spot in the top four and slowly start to erode away the lead of Saracens and Exeter.
Although not a semi-finalist, the same arguably applies to Harlequins, who were a missed penalty kick away from taking Saints’ place at Sandy Park and they, just like Gloucester and Northampton, have shown flashes of their potential this season and look as if they are trending upwards.
Integrating new signings, dealing with the disruption of a Rugby World Cup and preparing their squads for opponents who will have spent the summer working out how to stop them, consolidation will be easier said than done for Gloucester, Northampton and Quins.
Sale Sharks have invested heavily in their squad, as have promoted London Irish, whilst Bristol Bears have shown this season that they can beat anyone on their day. With the strengthening of the bottom half of the Premiership over the last few seasons and particularly notable recruitment this summer, it is getting harder, not easier, to cement a place in the top half of the table, let alone the playoff spots.
Nevertheless, the sides of Ackermann, Boyd and Paul Gustard have all shown promising trajectories under their new bosses and neutrals will be hoping that at least one of the three can maintain that into the next campaign, avoid “second season syndrome” and continue to close the gap on Exeter and Saracens.
The Premiership regular season has been as compelling as any in recent memory, but with Saracens and Exeter sitting so far ahead of the chasing pack, there is an undeniable fatigue and certainty to the closing stages of the competition.
English rugby needs a genuine challenger to their dominance and none of the contenders over the last few years have been able to keep pace for more than a season or two. Hopefully that changes in 2019/20.
Watch: The Academy – Part Six
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