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Premiership 2016-17: team-by-team review of the rugby union season | Sport


Bath

On and off the field this has been another uneven season for a Bath squad with loftier aspirations. Injuries have been savage at times – the club have had to pick six different starting hookers – but, despite European qualification, there is still a sense all is not entirely right. Further repercussions of the squad’s evening of high jinks at the Rec last month are anticipated this week – some players streaked across the pitch, a fire extinguisher was let off and a kicking clinic for children was heckled – and England’s George Ford is off to Leicester. At their best Bath can beat anyone but they finished 25 points behind table-toppers Wasps. Robert Kitson

Bristol

Bristol’s owner Steve Lansdown says he regrets not acting sooner to try to save the club’s season. Andy Robinson was dismissed as director of rugby after seven straight defeats following promotion to the top flight after seven years in the Championship, but Lansdown feels he should have “stuck my oar in earlier and recognised the danger signs”. It would probably have made little difference, despite the immediate improvement under Mark Tainton. Bristol had no time to make marquee signings last year because they did not know they would be going up until May and for all the impact made by Gary Gold at Worcester after he took over in January as director of rugby, the return to fitness of their South Africa scrum-half Francois Hougaard was as significant. Quality makes a difference. Paul Rees

Bristol’s head coach Mark Tainton has overseen improvement but could not prevent relegation.



Bristol’s head coach, Mark Tainton, has overseen improvement but could not prevent relegation. Photograph: Gary Day/Rex Shutterstock

Exeter

The Chiefs have excelled themselves yet again and have a home play-off semi-final as their reward. After a slow start the coaches and players deserve huge credit for their subsequent renaissance which has yielded a record eight straight maximum-point wins and nine consecutive try bonus points. Never in their history have they amassed more Premiership points or tries, despite not always seeming to fire on all cylinders. Even with Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Will Chudley, Mitch Lees and Julian Salvi missing for sizeable chunks of the domestic season, the squad’s positive, collective energy has endured. Do not count them out against Saracens on Saturday week. RK

Match report: Gloucester 20-34 Exeter

Gloucester

A chance of some silverware still exists if the Cherry and Whites can overcome Stade Français in Friday’s European Challenge Cup final. Ninth position in the domestic table, however, is disappointing by anyone’s standards (despite home wins over Saracens and Wasps) and the decision to block fresh investment by the French-based Mohed Altrad was described as “extremely short-sighted” by the club’s owner, Martin St Quinton, at the weekend. With the head coach, Laurie Fisher, resigning via Twitter and only seven wins from 22 league matches, the incoming Johan Ackermann’s first job will be to encourage greater consistency. RK

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Harlequins

Over the past couple of weeks, John Kingston has stressed the difficulty experienced in his first year in charge of Harlequins with Nick Evans’ final campaign disrupted by injury and Nick Easter moving to the coaching staff. As Kingston points out, to lose your fly-half and No8 for large parts of the first half of the campaign was always going to be difficult so it is no surprise to see their two major signings for next season – Demetri Catrakilis from Montpellier and Renaldo Bothma from the Bulls – will effectively replace Evans and Easter. But Kingston’s main concern is that he has five players away with England and two with the Lions this summer. In what sort of state they return may shape the first part of next season as they return to the Champions Cup. Gerard Meagher

Nick Easter has made the transition from playing staff to defence coach.



Nick Easter has made the transition from playing staff to defence coach. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Leicester

They never cease to amaze. By any measure this has been an apocalyptic season – three coaches jettisoned; a 43-0 defeat at home to a team, in Glasgow, they beat 90-19 only 20 years ago; a further three home defeats in the Premiership, two with the concession of more than 30 points. And there they are in the play-offs. For the 13th consecutive year. The bad news is that the other three are the very same who won at Welford Road this season, and they seem well ahead of them, but if nothing else the Tigers know play-off rugby well. Michael Aylwin

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Newcastle

Eighth place will do. It’s the Falcons’ best showing since 2006, when they finished seventh, and the first time since 2010 they haven’t finished in the bottom two (or been in the Championship). At times, they have been a joy to watch. Their wingers are fabulous and Juan Pablo Socino is one of the gems of the Premiership. The back five of their scrum remains a curiosity, full of athleticism, but bereft of genuine height. There is a trend for this in the modern game, but you sense a real brute of a lock might serve them well. MA

Northampton

There was an unfortunate irony to Northampton’s failure to finish in the top six on Saturday. Having slipped to late narrow defeats in three of their past four matches, this time Saints squeezed past Harlequins but not by a big enough margin to leapfrog them. There were positive signs – George North enjoyed far more of the ball when temporarily switching to centre and Teimana Harrison looked impressive off the bench – but for all that Jim Mallinder hopes the arrivals of Piers Francis and Rob Horne can reinvigorate Northampton, it will be a task made all the more difficult if they lose Louis Picamoles. Saints need a new broom – whether Mallinder can provide it remains to be seen. GM

Match report: Northampton 22-20 Harlequins

Northampton’s Louis Picamoles has been a driving force from the back of the scrum.



Northampton’s Louis Picamoles has been a driving force from the back of the scrum. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Sale

During a bleak run of defeats that put Sale in danger of slipping into a relegation fight at one stage, Steve Diamond spoke of the need for a bit more control. It has taken AJ MacGinty a while, but he is now providing the sort of game management that Diamond craves. Danny Cipriani’s form for Sale last season – doing the basics right – was a fundamental reason why they ended up in the Champions Cup and in the last couple of months the penny seems to have dropped for MacGinty. Denny Solomona scored yet another eye-catching try against Bath but Josh Charnley was also on the scoresheet and while the former has made the quicker transition from league to union, there are high hopes indeed that the former Wigan Warrior will be a hit in this code. GM

Premiership team of the season

Saracens

The champions may have finished third in the Premiership, but they are the team to beat in the play-offs. A trip to Exeter in the semi-final was the outcome of Saracens’ decision to rest the majority of their starting line-up, including five of the club’s six summer Lions, for Saturday’s match at Wasps. It is among the more demanding assignments in the Premiership, but they have not lost to the Chiefs in the last five league meetings between the sides and won there in the regular season. They had not conceded a try bonus point in the league or Europe all season and had they maintained that record, they would have been returning to Coventry in the semi-final to face opponents they are suited to playing, forcing mistakes and feeding off them, but such is Saracens’ self-belief that they will fret neither over who they are playing nor where. The repeat of last year’s final will not be for the faint of heart and Saracens will not have been as disappointed as Exeter when Elliot Daly scored Wasps’ fourth try. PR

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Elliot Daly races in for another Wasps try.



Elliot Daly races in for another Wasps try. Photograph: Phil Hutchinson/Action Plus via Getty Images

Wasps

There were reports last week that some Wasps supporters were reckoning that Dai Young’s time as director of rugby was up after the the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Leinster was followed by a second-half collapse at Harlequins which left them in danger of playing away in the play-offs. With the club now settled in Coventry and playing host to more than 30,000 spectators on Saturday, there are some who will have forgotten, or not been aware of, the plight they were in six years ago, in danger of being relegated and going bust. Young steered Wasps away from the rocks and this is only the second year under him that they have finished in the top four. They are at the start of their adventure and, as Saracens found, success is forged through learning from failure. Wasps are the daredevils of the Premiership, the great entertainers, but they oozed attitude against Saracens and need that combination of craft and graft in the closing weeks of the season. And they have Kurtley Beale: the Australian’s stint in the Premiership has been short, but it will live long in the memory. PR

Match report: Wasps 35-15 Saracens

Worcester

They’re the Scotland of the Premiership. Every year we think this could be the one they break through. But, like Scotland, they are getting there. They have a wonderful stadium, modern but just seedy enough to feel real. They have a wonderful back division. They need a pack. Alas, they must build it without Phil Dowson, one of English rugby’s noblest servants, who retired to a standing ovation early in the second half, having just drawn level with George Chuter in second place on 262 Premiership appearances. Sixteen years of professional rugby. Will we see many more careers like that? MA

Match report: Worcester 23-28 Leicester



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