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Premiership season review so far

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Premiership 'if season ends today' review amid COVID-19 fears

The final third of the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership season has been thrown into chaos in the northern hemisphere, as the COVID-19 outbreak derails sporting events throughout Europe.

The Guinness PRO14 has already declared that it will be suspending the remainder of its season and whilst the Premiership has made no such statement, it surely cannot be far behind its local rival in terms of decisive action.

It would not be the climactic culmination to the season that fans would have been hoping for, though in times like this, sport has to take a backseat to the welfare of its players, staff and fans, not to mention the thousands of others who will come into contact with them.

There will be little wiggle room to play out the remainder should it be suspended, with player contracts ending at the end of June and many set to be moving on to pastures new, whilst England players will have their tour of Japan in July to deal with, too, should it go ahead. If the season were to be suspended, it’s likely a shortened season is the best that fans could hope for, given all the time constraints around an already too densely packed schedule.

With that in mind, we have taken a look at the 12 Premiership clubs below and attempted to assess how positively or negatively they will view their 2019/20 campaigns, should the worst-case scenario come to pass and there is little-to-no more rugby played this season.

Continue reading below…

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Bath

After a torrid start to the season, Bath had begun to pick up some momentum, winning five of their six Premiership fixtures between December and February, although March has been a struggle with back-to-back losses to Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs.

The Heineken Champions Cup was a bridge too far for Bath in Stuart Hooper’s rookie season as a Director of Rugby, admittedly, but a curtailed season, should it come to pass, would, if anything, ease any pressure on Hooper. As stands, Bath are in sixth and would again qualify for the Champions Cup next season.

The raft of front row signings Bath made in the previous offseason have settled in well, Cameron Redpath has been acquired from Sale Sharks and Max Ojomoh and Gabriel Hamer-Webb have flashed their ability in the opportunities they have been given.

Mood – Wary. Cautious that previously thinking the corner had been turned has only led to further disappointment.

Bristol Bears

Bristol are certainly a club who will not want the season to end early, with Pat Lam’s side currently sitting in 3rd and pushing hard for a home semi-final in the playoffs. In their second season back in the Premiership, Bristol have developed a resoluteness that has seen them tough out hard-fought wins that they may have let slip through their fingers in the previous campaign.

Star signing Nathan Hughes has bedded in well alongside Steven Luatua and they will be joined by Kyle Sinckler, Semi Radradra, Max Malins and Ben Earl next season. If the club are looking to peak, it looks highly likely that it could come in the 2020/21 season.

The missed chance of going for glory this season would sting for Bristol fans, but in general the campaign has been a highly positive one for the Bears and the mood will be optimistic in the south-west.

Mood – Euphoric. The club’s stock continues to rise and recruitment has been eye-catching for next season.

Premiership COVID-19

If Kyle Sinckler can replicate his England form for Bristol, they will be one step closer to the title they covet. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Exeter Chiefs

Rob Baxter and Exeter have become accustomed to being at the top of the table and Saracens’ points deduction and relegation has had no effect on that. If you were being ultra-critical, though, you could argue that, more or less in Saracens’ absence, Exeter have not looked as dominant at the top of the table as many would have expected.

The Chiefs have had their moments and they have an upcoming home quarter-final in the Champions Cup to show for that, but they have not been able to separate themselves from the chasing pack in the Premiership in the way that they have done previously.

Jacques Vermeulen, Jannes Kirsten and Stuart Hogg have all taken to Devon life well and Jonny Gray is set to join them next season, as it looks like the club will continue to be very strong at the top of the competition. Baxter has also recruited well at a younger age, bringing in Aaron Hinkley, Corey Baldwin and Welsh prodigy Christ Tshiunza.

Mood – Pleased. Without being thrilled yet, with bigger challenges – and their previous stumbling blocks – still ahead.

Gloucester

If the season were to end tomorrow, it would be a highly disappointing one for Gloucester, who have fallen considerably short of the standards they set in the previous campaign. Having looked like a side who could genuinely challenge the dominance of Saracens and Exeter in the coming years, the Cherry and Whites have fallen sharply away.

The arrival of Joe Simpson gave the club an injection of impetus early in the campaign, but they have struggled at a number of positions to keep up the positive momentum from last season. The return of Jaco Kriel to the Lions has not helped, with the Springbok flanker not hitting the heights that fans would have hoped for during his time at Kingsholm.

The rise of Louis Rees-Zammit is a silver lining that few would have expected to come to prominence so quickly, whilst promising hooker Jack Singleton has been secured on loan for the upcoming campaign. There is too much talent at Gloucester next season for this lull to continue, surely?

Mood – Real disappointment. Cautious optimism that it’s just a one season lull, but that does little for the current mood.

Harlequins

Similar to Gloucester, Harlequins have fallen away this season after promising so much during the last campaign. In fairness to Paul Gustard and the Twickenham-based club, they have faced an unenviable injury crisis over the past number of months, and it has been an understandable mitigation for their current league position.

One positive to the injury crisis has been the increased opportunities that have gone the way of the likes of Gabriel Ibitoye and Cadan Murley, with the two backs cementing themselves as fixtures in the senior 23 this season. Coupled with the recruitment of Wilco Louw and Andre Esterhuizen, there’s reason for cautious optimism, despite the disappointing loss of Sinckler to Bristol.

Sometimes a calamitous injury list can derail a season and that certainly has been true of Quins this campaign, with next season looking like a much more insightful assessment of whether or not Gustard’s vision for the club is taking them forward, or if greater foundations still need to be laid before progress is truly made.

Mood – Slight disappointment. Quins have fallen away but as previously mentioned, their injury this seasons have been significantly higher than normal.

Leicester Tigers

Leicester’s nightmare 2018/19 season has largely followed them into this one and were it not for Saracens’ salary cap indiscretions, Tigers would currently be rooted to the bottom of the table. When optimists last season said that the only way was up for Leicester, they clearly hadn’t accounted for a plateauing out at the bottom.

The involvement of promising youngster Freddie Steward is a welcome cause for hope, although bright talent Sam Costelow will be leaving at the end of the season to make his way back to Wales, something which won’t help alleviate Leicester’s reliance on George Ford. Having made it to three-straight U18s finals, though, the club’s academy remains crucial in their ambitions to move back up the table.

A more short-term cause for optimism is the impact of Jordan Taufua, with the former Crusader having impressed in his opportunities so far. That said, it’s still sombre times in the East Midlands for the Tigers faithful.

Mood – Dejection. Any hopes of a quick rebound up the table are long gone and Tigers fans know their resurgence is a long-term goal.

Premiership COVID-19

This challenge got Freddie Steward into hot water, but his early forays for Leicester have been encouraging ones. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

London Irish

Irish’s season has had its peaks and its troughs, though the fact relegation is off the cards and that they are eight points above the lowest team not named Saracens, is reason enough to celebrate. The club spent big upon their return to the Premiership and it seems to have paid off.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing, though, is that the likes of Ben Loader and Ollie Hassell-Collins have been able to shine alongside the big-name imports, whilst others such as Matt Williams and Ben Donnell have also featured. Irish have leant heavily on those star recruits, but not at the expense of the club’s homegrown talents.

They will know that the hard work begins next season, when survival won’t be guaranteed and they’ll have to start balancing the salary expectations of current players with those lucrative deals they handed out last summer, but there is a feel-good factor around the club currently.

Mood – Pleasant surprise. The signings in the summer caught the eye but not too many will have expected them to gel so quickly and form as formidable a team as they have been.

Northampton Saints

Whilst Quins and Gloucester have fallen away after being in the playoff race last season, Northampton have stayed the course and currently occupy 4th spot, as well as a Champions Cup quarter-final trip to Sandy Park to take on Exeter.

It’s not all been smooth sailing for Saints this season, but they have shown the tenacity to emerge victorious in some tighter games. They have blooded plenty of academy talent, an academy that continues to punch above its relative weight, and the age profile of the side looks encouraging moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest concern at Northampton will be their defence, which has a propensity to leak points and tries. It’s not too different to that of Chris Boyd’s Hurricanes side, although they will need to add further firepower in attack if they are to replicate the feats of the Wellington-based club and win a title with those defensive frailties.

Mood – Content. Northampton have stayed relevant at the top without making a real stride forward.

Sale Sharks

Of all the sides in the Premiership, no club has had as big of a swing from negative to positive momentum this season as Sale. The arrival of reinforcements from South Africa has consolidated what the club already had in place and they now look good value for their current spot in the playoffs.

Lood de Jager is beginning to show his worth after injury and Akker van der Merwe has been impactful, although it’s been the returns of the du Preez twins, Daniel and Jean-Luc, who have been the biggest catalyst for Sale’s rise up the table. With the Curry twins and Jono Ross also in place for next season, the Sharks’ pack looks like one of the fiercest in the competition.

Losing Redpath to Bath will hurt and the mid-season departure of Chris Ashton has raised eyebrows, but ultimately it’s been a very positive season for Sale. Similarly to Irish, the bigger challenges lay ahead, balancing those high-end signings with increased salary expectations from existing players and finding opportunities for promising youngsters to get game-time.

Mood – Relief. Sale spent big and there would have been fears they couldn’t back up that expectation on the pitch, but they definitely have.

Saracens

From the moment the enlarged points deduction was handed out to Saracens, there was very little positive that was going to come out of this campaign. In fact, the only thing that can save it would be if the season does in fact play out and they are able to win the Champions Cup, giving them some sense of satisfaction before they spend at least one season in the Greene King IPA Championship.

Optimism does come in the news that Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and the Vunipola brothers are all likely to stay at the club, whilst Ben Earl and Max Malins have committed their long-term futures but will spend the 2020/21 season on loan at Bristol. Jack Singleton’s departure is also only temporary as he goes out on loan to Gloucester, whilst Rugby World Cup-winning tighthead Vincent Koch has said he will stay in north London.

Plenty of players are off, though, and Saracens’ rebuild is going to be a colossal one. They will understandably be the bookies’ favourite to return to the Premiership next season and it will be intriguing to see which players rise to the fore in the Championship, as Mark McCall likely gives a number of the club’s academy stars opportunities to impress.

Mood – Downbeat but intrigued. Of course the overriding feeling is disappointment at what has happened to the club, although the journey they are about to embark on is certainly an interesting one.

Premiership COVID-19

Joel Kpoku has taken his opportunities for Saracens this season after a successful age-grade career. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Wasps

Wasps’ season can be split into two halves, pre and post-Dai Young. The club and its former Director of Rugby went their separate ways after a challenging start to the season, only for interim DoR Lee Blackett to spark a resurgence in the club’s form and begin a steady march up the table.

Having lost a cadre of star performers over the past couple of seasons, Wasps’ struggles in this campaign weren’t entirely without warning, although their fall from grace during that period has been stark. They have struggled to replace the likes of Kurtley Beale, Charles Piutau, Willie le Roux, Elliot Daly and Christian Wade, all of whom have departed for new clubs or challenges over that period.

The development of Jacob Umaga has been encouraging this season and the Willis brothers form two parts of what could be a dominant back row in the coming years, though the path back to the top is going to be a long and arduous one for Wasps. Blackett is putting together a fine resume to be the man to take the club forward, something which might give Wasps fans some much-needed optimism.

Mood – At least it’s not as bad as it is at Leicester. An emotion former London Wasps fans will particularly enjoy and there are rays of light since Blackett took the helm.

Worcester Warriors

After a fast first third of the season, Worcester looked good for a safe spot in the middle of the table. That momentum has been lost a little lately, however, as Warriors currently sit in 10th, just two points above Leicester.

One major positive for the club has been the retention of Ted Hill and Ollie Lawrence, two exciting homegrown talents who can be foundation pieces in Worcester’s bid to be competitive at the top of the Premiership table. They aren’t currently surrounded by the quantity of quality academy prospects that some other teams have, although there is a very good class of U18s coming through this summer and patience will be a virtue for Worcester there.

Ultimately, though, it’s a similar story to one that Worcester fans know all too well, as they would currently be embroiled in a bitter relegation battle were it not for the Saracens situation at the bottom of the table. The club still has a long way to go to get to where it wants to be, although guaranteed Premiership survival certainly won’t have hurt their ambitions in terms of player recruitment for next season.

Mood – Cautious optimism. By retaining key players, consolidation is a possibility after years of player exoduses and the right words are being said, even if the consistent performances aren’t there on the pitch just yet.

Watch: Scottish coach says player has not contracted Coronavirus

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Premiership 'if season ends today' review amid COVID-19 fears
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