As the curtain fell on the regular Gallagher Premiership season on Saturday with Northampton pipping Harlequins to the fourth semi-final spot, we can reflect on a remarkable few months which saw much of the intrigue played out at the foot of the table.
Exeter and Saracens were always going to finish in the top two while Gloucester were a notable cut above the rest in third but it was the unprecedented fight to avoid bottom spot which engrossed us all for large parts of the season.
In the end, Newcastle Falcons came up short but Leicester, Worcester, Bristol, Wasps and even Bath all had their heart-stopping moments and all will be thinking “there but for the Grace” as they see Dean Richards men pack their bags and head for the Premiership exit.
But as the final league standings are known, and with only three games left to play, now feels like the appropriate time to join in the awards season and dish out The Independent's top Premiership gongs.
Team of season: Northampton Saints
They may have finished the season 30 points adrift of top-of-the-table Exeter but the mere fact Saints are still in the running at the business end of the season is a huge testament to Chris Boyd and the work he has done since taking over from Jim Mallinder last summer.
Saints were in a hole 12 months ago, finishing 10th in the Premiership, without a director of rugby and with a squad who’d forgotten what was required to produce consistent, winning rugby.
Under Boyd, they’ve rediscovered that formula and a brand of playing which suits a quick, dynamic player group.
Whatever happens in the play-off stages, Saints fans have their team back and can look ahead with optimism.
Try of season: Denny Solomana, Sale Sharks v Gloucester
A few contenders as always but it’s hard to look past Solomona’s outrageous finish against Gloucester on the final weekend of the season to round of an absolutely sensational move.
With scrum-half Faf de Klerk sparking the move and Tom Curry busting through the middle, the Sale No 9 injected pace before off-loading to AJ MacGinty. The Sale fly-half hardly broke stride before firing a magnificent pass off his left hand into the wingers hands and Solomana touched down with almost unbelievable dexterity to complete a world-class try.
When Sale players asked referee Wayne Barnes if it was a fair try before the Television Match Official awarded the score, the on-field referee replied “we hope so”. We all hoped so.
Player of season: Danny Cipriani, Gloucester
Northampton’s Cobus Reinach receives an honourable mention in dispatches, along with Sale’s Tom Curry (more later), but such was Cipriani’s consistent brilliance it is impossible not to award the Gloucester fly-half the top prize.
It seems Eddie Jones will continue to ignore the most gifted player of his generation, who has for several seasons combined hard work and diligence with his lavish talent to produce high-quality rugby wherever he goes. We can only fathom the reasoning.
Only Charlie Hodgson in the professional era can hold a candle to Cipriani’s passing ability and Gloucester this season became the latest Premiership club (see Wasps and Sale in recent times) to benefit from having him as their ring-master.
Young player of season: Tom Curry (Sale Sharks)
With the likes of Max Malins, Matt Gallagher, Nick Isiekwe and Ben Earle emerging as serious Premiership players at Saracens it is tempting to give this award en-masse to the north London club’s magnificent academy.
But one young player elsewhere stood out as a durable, teak-tough leader for club and country this season and Tom Curry deserves the accolade for a magnificently consistent season.
Watching the young openside play, it’s remarkable to think he is still only 20 but playing with a level of maturity and physicality which defies his age. Surely an England captain of the future.
Premiership winners: Premier Rugby accounts departments
The money men and women at every Premiership club will finish the season purring after private equity firm CVC Capital pumped more than £200m into the coffers in the process of taking a 26 per cent share, which hands them huge influence over the future course of the league.
How the investment plays out in the long-term remains to be seen, and many of us fear for the players who could suffer even more unreasonable physical demands than they already are in, but in the short-term every Premiership club’s accounts look rosier than they did.
It is still hard to understand if the sport is truly viable commercially with every Premiership club barring Exeter continuing to run at an operating loss, but CVC’s dosh has certainly cheered the money-men up in the short term.
Premiership losers: Leicester Tigers
How bad does it have to get at Welford Road before sweeping changes are made to the club’s hierarchy? Quite simply the worst season in the once proud club’s history saw the country’s best supported team finish 11th in the league and fortunate not to be relegated. Arguably, they were even worse in Europe.
A club once synonymous with grit, inner steel and single-minded determination to win has become synonymous with in-fighting, poor leadership and a flimsy forward pack.
Rookie director of rugby Geordan Murphy will be peering nervously over his shoulder now former England coach Mike Ford is around but it’s Leicester’s board who should be held accountable for a string of terrible appointments and some of the worst recruitment in the league.
Tigers fans deserve better.
Feud of the season: Steve Diamond and me
What a shame Sale’s director of rugby could not rise above a critical piece I wrote about his “old school” methods back in September and instead enjoy the relative success his team achieved after a difficult start to the season.
By publicly lying about me, unprompted, in his final press conference of the season on Saturday Diamond voluntarily reopened a can of worms I’d long since confined to the gutter.
Worst piece of business: Dai Young allowing Danny Cipriani to leave Wasps and replacing him with All Black also ran, Lima Sopoaga. Lovely bloke but not in Cipriani’s league as a 10 and Wasps suffered as a result.
Best piece of business: Johan Ackermann signing Danny Cipriani.
The Independent’s play off predictions: Saracens to be crowned champions
Exeter may have finished top of the pile and their impressive win over Northampton on Saturday suggests their fully-loaded side is rediscovering its best form at the right time. But Saracens imperious march to the European Champions Cup trophy reminded us that on their day they are close to unbeatable. It’s hard to see anyone laying a glove on them in the coming weeks.