With the Aviva Premiership Final taking place this weekend, Shôn Douglas gives his end of year report on the 12 teams of the 2013/2014 season…
SARACENS – There are few superlatives left for Saracens. They end the season top of the league, in the final against Northampton, with a Heineken Cup runners-up medal after losing to a Jonny Wilkinson inspired Toulon in Cardiff, and having managed to fuse grit and flair into a truly exceptional form of rugby. The return to fitness of Jacques Burger, inspired form of Schalk Brits and the emergence of Billy Vunipola have been the basis upon which Saracens have swept all aside in their quest for glory. Ahead of the new campaign, the acquisition of man mountain Jim Hamilton sees Mark McCall replace the iconic Steve Borthwick, who moves to Japan to take up a coaching role, whilst the additions of England Sevens star Mike Ellery and Pumas prop Juan Figallo give an indication that the coaching set up aren’t keen on wholesale change, rather key additions to a finely tuned machine.
STAR MAN: Jacques Burger
GRADE: A– Another Premiership title will be a good result for Sarries, but missing out on the Heineken Cup will rankle with all involved in the set up.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS – Saints started the season at breathtaking pace, playing rugby with wanton abandon, sweeping sides away with consummate ease and unleashing George North onto the Aviva like a human wrecking-ball. Stephen Myler answered the questions as to whether he was a good enough stand-off to operate in an increasingly talented back division, earning a call up to the England side as a result along with breakthrough success Luther Burrell. The balance between the well-drilled pack and slick backs was flawless at times, with Jim Mallinder having succeeded in achieving every coach’s dream. Victory in the Amlin Cup against Bath capped off a fine season, with silverware just rewards for their endeavours in all competitions. Mallinder hasn’t yet added to his squad for the new season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Saints only look for squad players in pre-season.
STAR MAN: Samu Manoa
GRADE: A The chance of a Premiership title is still there for Saints, irrespective of Saracens’ status as ‘nailed-on favourites’. Beating them in Round 6 and going close at Allianz Park in Round 19 will give Northampton confidence going to Twickenham.
LEICESTER TIGERS – After the start to the season Tigers had, finishing in the top four ranks as one of the greatest achievements in recent seasons (title victories included)! Tigers usually thrive when their squad depth comes into its own during international breaks, however the Lions tour left the Welford Road side painfully thin on the ground. Messrs Tuilagi, Parling, Croft, Cole, Allen and Slater all missed prolonged periods of the season, which granted the likes of Jamie Gibson, Logovi’i Mulipola and Owen Williams chance to impress. Fly-half Williams in particular put his hand up in a big way, offering Cockerill light at the end of the Toby Flood tunnel, the club captain having announced his desire to move on next season.
STARMAN: Niki Goneva
GRADE: C The form shown by Tigers since the New Year lifted them into the play off places at the expense of Bath, but ultimately they suffered defeat to the hands of arch rivals Northampton Saints. The Tigers will retreat to lick their wounds, and look to next season with a view to returning to HQ and retaking their title.
HARLEQUINS – Quins are another side who will be bitterly disappointed to finish the season without the tickertape in the air. A gallant defeat at the hands of Clermont Auvergne will prove no consolation to the Twickenham side, nor will coming runners-up to title favourites Saracens in the play-off semi-finals. Conor O’Shea’s side will have to lift weary bodies after the summer’s tours are over, and focus on trying to overcome the final hurdle which has undone them so often. The stand-out individuals in the Quins side have been the England contingent of Danny Care, Joe Marler, Nick Easter and of course, RPA Player of the Year, Mike Brown. Brown’s ascendancy in the last two years has been meteoric. Missing out on the Lions tour down under seemed to spur the full-back on, and his performances this season were nothing short of exceptional. If the rest of the squad can react to disappointment as well as Mike Brown, they should be raring to go when the season starts.
STAR MAN: Mike Brown
GRADE: B O’Shea will have turned his focus to next year as soon as the final whistle in the semi final blew. The signings of Marland Yarde and Chiefs winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma will freshen up the wing options, allowing for a more expansive style of rugby which will suit the players and the Stoop crowd. Europe will be a target, but the new format is an unknown quantity, and Premiership victory top of the list.
BATH RUGBY – Bath will be disappointed that this season has not resulted in silverware. The dip in form towards the end of the campaign will have left a bitter taste in the mouth for Mike Ford. The arrival of George Ford has been pivotal in Bath’s movement from also-rans into genuine play-off challengers. His link up with veteran scrum-half Peter Stringer enabled the explosive backs to run riot in the league, with Anthony Watson and Kyle Eastmond in particular converting their undoubted potential into points and international recognition. The marquee signing of “Slammin’” Sam Burgess from NRL side South Sydney Rabbitohs is sure to bring with it the usual confusion as to where best to utilise the undoubted talents of the 25 year old, but wherever he plays he will catch the eye.
STAR MAN: George Ford
GRADE: B- The lack of a trophy for all the good work put in, slightly lessens the grade. But any Bath fan will take a lot of positives from this year, and see it as a catalyst to greater things in the coming season. The minimum expectation will be to push for a top four place, and into the lottery of the play offs.
SALE SHARKS – Lead by a resurgent Danny Cipriani, Sale Sharks have been a surprise package in the Premiership this season. Every year Sale seem to recruit well and subsequently fail to deliver upon the expectations placed in them, but this year was different. Steve Diamond has taken a disjointed group and given them a great deal of self belief. The arrival of skipper Dan Braid has proven to be an inspired signing, and the centre pairing of Tuitupo and Leota still cause problems for defences throughout the league. The emergence of Michael Paterson, following his signing from Cardiff Blues, has also been a major highlight for the club. So much so, that he’s included in Stuart Lancaster’s England squad for the tour of New Zealand. Add into the equation the blooding of fine young talent, and Sale have the nucleus for success.
STAR MAN: Daniel Braid
GRADE: C+ With old heads Nathan Hines, Chris Cusiter and the impressively hirsute Luke McLean already confirmed for next season, Sale will be confident of repeating this season’s excellent table position whilst simultaneously enjoying their appearance in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup.
LONDON WASPS – Much like Gloucester, the glory days at Wasps seem a very long time ago. Adams Park has seen its trophy cabinet gather rather a lot of dust recently, but an impressive victory over Stade Francais in the European Champions Cup Play-Off has given Wasps a tilt at Europe next season to show for their efforts. However, the manner of the final day thrashing at the hands of a rampant Saints will live long in the memories of those involved. Irrespective of the weakened side fielded, Dai Young’s men were embarrassed by George North et al and defeats like that belong to the amateur era. Were it not for the try scoring exploits of Tom Varndell, the rise and rise of Joe Launchbury, plus the evergreen Andy Goode notching some vital points for Wasps, the league position may have been beyond them.
STAR MAN: Joe Launchbury
GRADE: C Though by no means a disaster of a season, coming behind Sale will have been tough to take. With transfers already being agreed for the impressive Sale forward James Gaskell, Wales second-row Bradley Davies, as well as Lorenzo Cittadini into the front row, Wasps are building a strong pack to compliment the free-scoring exploits of their backline. If they achieve a similar balance to Northampton, they could rediscover the sting in their tails.
EXETER CHIEFS – One of the success stories of 2013-2014 was the Chiefs. Rob Baxter’s side have come up from the Championship and established themselves as a side with a great team ethic, as well as genuine flair with the ball, particularly in the hands of youngster Jack Nowell. The league campaign tailed off somewhat, but victory in the LV=Cup Final against Northampton Saints gave the best fans in the league something to repay their fanatical support and the club its first silverware in their 143 year history. Baxter will be keen to replicate the relentless start to the season, which catapulted them into the upper echelons before a lack of squad depth showed. The acquisition of Thomas Waldrom from Leicester Tigers is a huge statement of intent by the Exeter side, and few would be begrudge the Sandy Park club another season of Tomahawk Chops galore!
STAR MAN: Jack Nowell
GRADE: B+ Silverware, a comfortable mid table finish and Sandy Park being redeveloped = pretty much a dream season for all involved! Had the team maintained their early season form, then this B+ would have been an A.
GLOUCESTER RUGBY – After the 2012-2013 season where Gloucester had played with a joie de vivre that earned rave reviews from fans and journalists alike, a lot was expected of the Cherry and Whites this season. Unfortunately for the Kingsholm faithful, the failure of Freddie Burns to ignite a backline so electric last season, and a truly dreadful pack, meant Nigel Davies’ side never really even looked like troubling the top four. Much required front-row replacements have arrived in British Lion Richard Hibbard and Ulster’s John Afoa, but a disagreement has seen Davies lose his job ahead of the new campaign. Whoever comes in to replace him will have a tough job ahead to stop a very visible rot.
STAR MAN: Rob Cook
GRADE: D- Mid table isn’t where a club like Gloucester should be operating, especially with their star studded line up. But until the pack provide the platform for the backs to shine, the club will linger behind the top clubs for some time.
LONDON IRISH – Another year to forget for London Irish. Haemorrhaging young talent in the shape of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, David Sisi and Matt Garvey to Bath alone was never going to make the new campaign one to savour for the Reading-based outfit. The signing of A-lister James O’Connor offered some brief recompense to the weary Irish fans, but injury to star player Marland Yarde and an inability to cross the whitewash told come May. Significant efforts to redress the balance by recruiting well and early have commenced in earnest: ex-Gloucester flanker Luke Narraway and powerful Ulsterman Tom Court just two to arrive so far.
STAR MAN: Blair Cowan
GRADE: E The glory days of the noughties are rapidly becoming distant memories, and nothing looks likely to change unless Irish can retain their young talent to create a strong core unit.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS – Returning to the top flight is never an easy feat, but with the ultimate taskmaster Dean Richards at the helm, the Falcons’ resolve was never going to be in question. A number of shrewd acquisitions (Rory Clegg, Mike Blair and Andy Saull) strengthened the promotion winning side, enabling them to perform the tough ask of retaining Premiership status at the first attempt with relative ease. The signing of Alessana and Andy Tuilagi ahead of 2014-2015 is a real statement of intent from the northernmost side in the Aviva.
STAR MAN: Alex Tait
GRADE: C Anything other than relegation was going to be a success, and Richards’ men will be looking to build next year.
WORCESTER WARRIORS – Despite a summer of investment in new playing staff as well as the announcement of ex-Gloucester Head Coach Dean Ryan as the new man in charge, Warriors endured a torrid season culminating in their finishing rock bottom. Spirited performances against the likes of Leicester Tigers (22-23 loss), Harlequins (21-20 loss) and beating relegation rivals Newcastle in Round 18 were not enough to prevent Worcester returning to the Championship for the first time since 2011.
STAR MAN: Chris Pennell
GRADE: F It was always going to be tough to compete, but relegation is a disaster for the club.