Following the Round 26 action in the Premiership, here’s our five takeaways from a memorable weekend as the season reaches a pivotal stage.
And then there were four
26 action packed weekends ended in a tumultuous climax on Saturday as Northampton Saints destroyed Newcastle Falcons 65-26 to join Saracens, Harlequins and Leicester to make this year’s Premiership semi-final line up complete.
It was both a fun and try-filled affair, a last weekend of the regular season that saw 58 tries scored (15 at Franklin’s Gardens alone) as Round 26 of 2021/22 became the highest try-scoring round this century and second only to the 68 seen in the last round of the 1998/9 season.
Despite a fantastic win over second-placed Saracens, Gloucester never quite managed to do enough despite their 54-7 victory, but George Skivington’s men will take some solace that they will join Sale, Exeter, and London Irish in the Champions Cup next season, an apt reward for what has been a thrilling season for the Cherry and Reds.
With Bristol losing heavily to a Faf de Klerk inspired Sale and with Wasps not quite managing to take advantage of the mathematical chance they had, the table has a distinct ‘them and us’ look about it, with Bristol, Worcester, Newcastle and Bath having seasons they’d much rather forget.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the best four teams this season have qualified on merit and next weekend promises to be an epic affair of semi-final rivalry, fuelled by two local derbies between four stellar rugby sides.
From the very first weekend in September 2021 when they disposed of Exeter at Welford Road 34-19 they’ve maintained their incredible form and consistency right down to the wire, finishing with 20 wins and only four losses.
With Steve Borthwick taking a season to bed in, his second year in charge has seen the turnaround of Tigers fortunes complete. The Welford Road DNA of abrasive forward play, a peerless set-piece and challenging power in both collision and carry seems to have been recreated after a number of fallow seasons and with deadly East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints next up in the semi-finals, few would bet against this great club returning to their former glories and continuing the run of success they’ve enjoyed in this year’s Premiership.
Above all, with iconic skipper Ellis Genge leaving for his home town Bristol next season, Tigers will want to see their main man off in style and next weekend’s encounter promises to be an absolute crackerjack.
Quietly and almost imperceivably, Saracens rejoined the Premiership they left for a season, but simply carried on where they left off, yet again in the mix for the play-offs, the 10th time they’ve achieved this in 12 years with five titles to their name.
With 17 wins in their 24 games, they ensured a home tie in Round 25 but took an opportunity to rest a number of key performers this weekend. They are their usual brilliantly efficient selves, arguably the best coached outfit in the league, with players like Theo McFarland and loan returnees Ben Earl and Max Malins absolutely shining amongst their galaxy of stars.
Owen Farrell’s return in April simply hardened their already steely determination to prove to all that salary cap breaches were just a mere bagatelle and blown completely out of proportion as the club that has dominated the last decade looks to continue their grip on the Premiership trophy.
With Eddie Jones taking notice of the rejuvenation of Mako Vunipola, a recall cannot be too far away from the rumbustious powerhouse himself, brother Billy. The younger Vunipola has been back to his barrelling best this season and creates yards in contact that he has absolutely no right to make.
With Harlequins at the StoneX next weekend, only a remarkable display from the visitors can prevent Sarries from yet another final and you can be sure the fans will be packed in to view what promises to be one of the matches of the season.
Harlequins and Northampton Saints share a lot in common.
Their ability simply to score more tries than the teams they play against has seen them become the entertainers of the 2021/2 season, their potency in attack sometimes outweighing both their defence and perhaps lightweight in contact.
Much to the delight of the Premiership management, both teams will travel away next weekend to face deadly rivals in local derbies – in two absolute cauldrons of rugby intensity against a pair of brilliantly supported teams in Saracens and Leicester Tigers. Perhaps both the neutral supporters and the rugby romantics would love to see both of these incredibly attractive sides get to Twickenham, but the uphill task that both have is unenviable.
However, with remarkable symmetry, the 9, 10, 12, 13 axis of both teams is their strength, with two world class fly-halves in Dan Biggar and Marcus Smith pulling the strings, serviced by the best scrum-halves – Alex Mitchell and Danny Care – and with a number of playmakers in their ranks in order to allow their stellar 10s to act as either first or second receiver.
In both cases, you wonder if their forwards have enough grunt to compete in the lions dens that are Welford Road and the StoneX Stadium, but Quins have one of the most competitive front-rows in the competition; they might yet upset Saracens in a match that’s tough to call, but Saints will need to pull out something very special if they’re to progress past their laudable third place.
At the foot of the table, the season cannot finish quickly enough for Bristol, Worcester, Newcastle and Bath.
Pat Lam’s side, hampered by the loss of Earl and Malins back to Saracens, and with injuries to key players such as Semi Radradra, have had their moments but look a shadow of the team that rose to great heights in recent seasons. With a perception of lack of grunt up front, they won’t panic quite yet but need to step up next season.
Worcester held on once again, but with Steve Diamond and Nick Easter taking the reins over full time next year and with a fertile catchment area for talent, it might just be that they have the biggest opportunity for improvement next season.
Bath’s 18 defeats is quite a remarkable statistic given the quality of players they have at their disposal. With something like a dozen current internationals in their ranks, their inability to contest in collision and breakdown is almost baffling and, despite yet another season of gloom, the only real change is the sideways move of Stuart Hooper to general manager, surprising given the results under his tenure.
With Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards finally calling it a day after a 38-year love affair with professional rugby, the northern-most club have a clean sheet of paper next season, with Dave Walder installed as the new head coach.
Nevertheless, their budget is as tight as they come, their performances committed if underwhelming and in order to continue in the highest level, they need a big season in 2022/23 to justify their existence and to reward their long suffering owners for years of underperformance.
2021/2 might have been the season where normality returned to Tigers and Saracens, but at the foot of the table these four sides simply must do a lot better if they’re to survive the harsh realities of Premiership rugby next year.
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The article Premiership: Five takeaways from Round 26 as Northampton book semi-final spot while Leicester and Gloucester also shine appeared first on Planetrugby.com.