Premiership: Five takeaways from the regular season finale as Bath rejoice and focus now shifts to mouth-watering semi-finals
Following the final round of the regular season in the Premiership, Planet Rugby writer James While brings us his five takeaways from Saturday’s action.
And then there were four
The league part of the 2022/23 Premiership is done and dusted, with the play-offs complete, where Saracens host Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers visit Sale next weekend.
It is a season that many will remember for precisely the wrong reasons – the demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors, followed more recently by financial issues at Newcastle Falcons and London Irish, which has underlined just how precarious the Premiership and professional rugby itself really are. But on the flip side, the product has thrived on the pitch with a massive 771 tries scored in 220 matches, with as many as 32 fixtures separated by only one score in the final result.
Detractors might say it’s lightweight rugby, and some would say they have a point, but tries are what put bums on seats, and in that regard the Premiership has delivered attractive rugby, partly due to the lack of relegation, but more importantly due to the incredibly consistent standard of officiating where England pretty much lead the world.
The semi-finals will be packed out and eagerly anticipated, but in the current financial climate, one has to ask why high-capacity neutral grounds aren’t employed to sweat the revenue value from these fixtures when all of the clubs are so vitally in need of funding.
Just north east of Bristol over the River Severn there’s a little town called Bream – a place known for giving the world the outstanding Test match official, Wayne Barnes. Bream is almost equidistant between Gloucester and Bristol, so when those two clubs met with the latter desperate to gain a place in Europe, there was no better man than Barnes to officiate. However, not even the great referee could have seen himself awarding a penalty try and yellow card to seal the fate of his local club, but that’s precisely what happened as Charles Piutau, in his very last act as a Bear, deliberately knocked on to knock his own club out of the Champions Cup.
That might be doing a disservice to Bath, who slaughtered a third string Saracens 61-29 courtesy of a Tom Dunn hat-trick and a last gasp try from Ollie Lawrence to see them through. There have been grumbles about the side Sarries named for their trip to the Rec – with hardly any of their best 23 available save an injury-returning Elliot Daly – but Mark McCall, mindful of the fact next week’s opponents Saints have a bye week, will be sure to remind everyone in earshot that his men had earned the right to have a restful week because of their work earlier in the season, and you’d have to admit the man has a point.
It leaves Bristol playing in the Challenge Cup alongside Falcons and Gloucester themselves, but the league has been so tight this year that all of those three sides have, at one point or another, been in the top three of the table.
So long, farewell
As the season closes, so the Premiership says goodbye to some incredible talents. Semi Radradra and Piutau have added so much to Bears that one can easily argue they’re all time Premiership greats. Ben Morgan, Dave Attwood and Billy Twelvetrees were integral parts of England 10 years ago, but today saw their last moments as a top flight pro before they go their separate ways.
Others – Andy Uren, Ioan Lloyd, Sam and Joe Simmonds, Rob Simmons, David Ribbans, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Jannes Kirsten and Wilco Louw to name just a few – have fallen to the salary cap pressures and/or the attraction of bigger wage packets over the channel or further afield. Spare a thought too for Tigers’ Chris Ashton, the Premiership’s first try centurion, who was red carded today and will miss the last two matches of his illustrious career.
To lose so many players of this quality cannot be good for the quality of the Premiership nor of England rugby overall. The need to tighten belts is clear, but there’s also a need for greater and more creative revenue generation to offset the need for low salary cap ceilings.
Make no mistake about it, the collapse of Worcester and Wasps sent shockwaves through the mindset of players, polarising their thoughts about securing their futures. None can be blamed for looking after themselves or their families, and it’s an unfortunate truth that the players have reacted with their feet to the unfortunate financial issues within the game.
Let’s hope that the RFU and PRL see just how big the issue has become – the Premiership cannot do anything other than take a knock in standard as a result of this huge exodus and it will be intriguing to see how the authorities react to secure what is their own future and the future of the professional game.
The road ahead
The future holds a lot in store for English rugby – the Premiership finals and also the small matter of a Rugby World Cup. For the latter, Steve Borthwick will be delighted that Val Rapava-Ruskin, Elliot Daly, George McGuigan and Lawrence all returned from injuries, some long term, to put in some banging performances today. Rapava-Ruskin barrelled on to Ashton Gate and carried on as if he’d never been away, grabbing three turnovers, folding Max Lahiff like a deckchair at scrum-time and offloading like a portly Sonny Bill Williams. Lawrence and Daly may well find themselves in England’s midfield together sometime this summer and both were excellent in opposition at the Rec, and with McGuigan also thriving, Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield will have some big green ticks in their selection notepad.
With Sale warming up for Leicester’s visit by thumping Falcons 54-12, they look to have timed their run to perfection. If they can hold the formidable Tigers pack out, then we believe they will book their place in the final at Twickenham on May 27.
But the other semi might just prove to throw up the shock of the season as Saracens, unbeaten at the StoneX in the Premiership this season, host a Saints side approaching the top of their game. This is one that we believe will be edged by availability and form – Saints have all their big guns, including Courtney Lawes, fit and available. Trevor Davison’s signing from Falcons has transformed their scrummage and providing they win enough ball, with the firepower they have, we could see a big surprise next weekend in north London. It’s not as if they’ve not been here before. Last year they did enough in the first 20 minutes at Welford Road to have put Tigers away but for a litany of handling errors, in particular by one man who blew four clear walk-in opportunities in the opening 21 minutes.
As one rugby scribe commented, rather acerbically, in the press box at Twickenham during the Six Nations: “If Courtnall Skosan could catch, would Steve Borthwick now be England coach?!” Let’s hope Saints, and the other three semi-finalists, grab all their chances next weekend and treat us to yet another example of the thrill-a-minute that is Premiership Rugby.
The 2022/23 Premiership in numbers
771 – Number of tries scored across the matches.
84 – Most tries scored – by Northampton Saints with Saracens and Harlequins in joint second place with 78. Falcons were the least prolific with a still commendable 52 crosses of the whitewash.
267 – Most penalties conceded – by Exeter Chiefs with Falcons in second place with 236. By contrast, Tigers were the least penalised with a squeaky clean 181 penalties against them.
218 – The most points scored by one individual, Paddy Jackson of London Irish, with Rob du Preez of Sale second with 174.
15 – The leading try-scorer was Quins’ Cadan Murley, one ahead of Mateo Carreras of Falcons.
However, as the semi-finals approach, one set of statistics surprised us all at Planet Rugby – if you look at metres made, passes, tackles, defenders beaten, clean breaks, points scored and tries scored each one of those lists see one club at the top – Northampton Saints.
Now if that’s not an omen for next weekend, we really don’t know what is.
READ MORE: Premiership: Late Bath try seals Champions Cup qualification at expense of rivals Bristol Bears
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