They made Europe with the last kick of what has been an otherwise curious season, but they are used to those at the Rec. Rumours abounded at the very start that Todd Blackadder was about to receive his marching orders, and some weird failures to score raised further questions about the culture. Then Blackadder signed a contract extension. Then, in April, he announced he was leaving. Stuart Hooper’s appointment looks one for the long term. He is a club legend and he is going to need to be. Evidently there is lots more to be done. Bruce Craig is a famously ambitious owner of questionable patience.
The main thing is they are still there. To have lost England’s biggest rugby city to relegation again would have been too depressing. As it is, Bristol have entertained royally and have an average gate of 16,000 – where have they been for most of the pro era? Sometimes too daring for their own good, they have played with a confidence that makes them seem part of the furniture already. Pat Lam is on the shortlist for director of rugby of the season, the only one from outside the top four. Harry Thacker was another star of the show.
The machine rumbles on, top try-scorers and top of the table. They have been treading water for the past few weeks as they await the home semi-final they qualified for ages ago, but qualifying for the play-offs so early in so ferociously competitive a league is an achievement in its own right. And if they have been criticised for becoming the Munster of English rugby, endlessly battering through the phases, there are signs of a development in their attack this season, as Henry Slade, Matt Kvesic et al continue to bloom. As for Santiago Cordero …
Photograph: Richard Lee/JMP/Rex/Shutterstock
They have been the Scotland of recent years, if by Scotland we mean a team constantly tipped for success only to disappoint. Now, in Johan Ackermann’s second season, they have the first tangible evidence of progress – a place in the play-offs. Well worth it they are too, having pulled from the mid-table bun fight in recent rounds. Their form on the road has improved, and the infuriating inconsistency has been smoothed out. Some way shy of the top two still, but with Danny Cipriani producing some impressive stuff among the outside backs, Gloucester are making Kingsholm proud again.
About a metre away from the play-offs. If James Lang’s long-range penalty attempt had flown just a little further, Quins would have finished fourth. Which is quite an improvement on last season’s 10th, their worst showing since the year of their triumph, 2012. So credit to Paul Gustard’s new regime. Mind you, they won only three more games than they did last season and scored only five extra tries. Where they have been much better, as one might expect under England’s former defence coach, is in stopping others, conceding 22 tries fewer.
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Last season they failed to make the play-offs (by a point) for the first time. We thought that was bad. This season they have flirted with relegation, finished in the bottom half and registered a single digit in their win column, all for the first time. And another first, for anyone, they sacked their director of rugby after one match. Somehow their maestro, George Ford, still shines amid the gloom. Look at their back division, look at that front row. The back five of the pack need help, but their plight highlights most of all what a brutal league this is.
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If we require further proof of the Premiership’s brutality, look no further. Newcastle were that team to pip Leicester to the play-offs last season; this season the same pair battled against relegation. The Falcons are the first side to be relegated the season after they made the play-offs previously. They will tell you not much changed other than the precarious lottery of results. Because of it, the Premiership loses its sole representative in the northernmost quarter of the country, just as it staged Europe’s showpiece weekend to such local enthusiasm. It is a costly lottery, this relegation system, and rugby suffers.
No arguing with a return to the play-offs, however narrowly they made it. No side have qualified with as few points (56) or as many defeats (11). Then again, no side have qualified for the last play-off spot with as many tries (73). Make of that what you will. Chris Boyd’s first season must be counted a success. If a club can be judged by how much fun their show team is to watch, he has transformed the place. Cobus Reinach, Rory Hutchinson, Taqele Naiyaravoro – these are just some of the beneficiaries. And so are the rest of us.
All eyes turn to La Rochelle’s home match against Bordeaux-Bègles at the weekend. Win, and La Rochelle finish in the top six in France, which, to cut a long story short, will mean Sale qualify for Europe next season. And they will be quite a force by then, if a dramatic influx of South Africans hit the ground running. If the CVC money is inclining anyone to be bullish, Sale are the ones most obviously bingeing. They will have practically half the country to themselves next season without Newcastle in the north. Time to make it pay.
Still the best team in the country. In the continent, indeed. They juggle enough internationals and European commitments to cost them inviolate status at the top of the table – and to cost them the trust of everyone that they are within the salary cap – but there is little arguing with Saracens at their best on the field. Off it, they are sickeningly perfect too, as a force for good in the community and a nursery for English talent. And, refreshingly, they drink. Alex Goode – one of England’s finest players and, it turns out, best drinkers. Could the two be linked?
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Another in the play-offs last season, another haunted by relegation this. How ridiculous the idea of Leicester and Wasps in a relegation fight would have seemed last season. Wasps found some form when it mattered, winning handsomely at Exeter in round 19, but all is not well. They lose some high-profile players this summer amid rumours of discontent, and that bond issue is another year closer to maturity. Meanwhile, the Financial Conduct Authority is investigating some irregularities, and the deficits continue to yawn. Worrying times.
Most people’s tip for relegation, but if they are relegation fodder, the Premiership is in good nick. Like Bristol, the other favourites for the drop, they have played some fabulous rugby. Duncan Weir has revived Scotland’s interest in his talents, Josh Adams has been summoned back to Wales, Bryce Heem to the euro-fest across the Channel. These and others have lit up the Premiership. But all remains shady off the field. The consortium which took over this season is an unknown quantity, and Worcester’s accounts are nearly two months overdue, which is never a good sign.