Crashball Rugby Editor Ali Stokes reviews the rise or fall or each Premiership team's stocks since the end of the 2016/17 season.
A season yielding no silverware this year in the final hurdle at Twickenham or play-off qualification for Europe, on the face of it, suggests a fall in fortunes for Rob Baxter’s men. However, last season Exeter failed to top the league come the final rounds and did not have the capability to run Leinster as close as they did in Dublin this year. Exeter’s success in their title-winning Premiership campaign last year was benefitted by the fact their home semi-final came against a weary Saracens side, benefitting from the home advantage of the fortress that is Sandy Park and the relentless ringing of the tomahawk chop for the full 80.
They may not have succeeded in defending their domestic crown this year, but I am firmly in the belief that Exeter are in a stronger position than they were twelve months ago. Exeter dominated the league this year, finishing eight points ahead of second-placed Saracens and as previously mentioned, ran an immensely powerful Leinster side commendably close.
In terms of their overall standings, Exeter’s stocks have risen. They are mentally and physically tougher than they were this time last year and have unearthed additional stars in the form of external signings (Matt Kvesic, Nic White, Santiago Cordero) or the promotion of youth (Joe Simmonds). The only difference between winning and losing the Premiership final this year was the magnitude of obstacles blocking their path.
It’s hard to gauge Saracens’ campaign considering their mid-season drop in form, failure to pass through to the European semi-finals and then subsequent gilt-edged finish to the regular season that saw them put 50+ points over opposition in their final four fixtures in the lead up to lifting a third domestic trophy in four years.
Last season, Saracens enjoyed tremendous success in Europe but were met with disappointment in the Premiership knockout stages. This year the reverse is true of the two leagues, falling short in the Champions Cup whilst finishing their domestic campaign with a title-winning flourish.
Saracens’ mid-season slump seems to have prevented them from moving forwards, constantly playing catch-up since suffering a seven-game losing streak. It’s hard to justify the argument that Saracens have either progressed or regressed this year, instead sitting in an odd sort of limbo.
After finishing at the top of the table last season and narrowly losing out to Exeter in extra time of the Premiership final, Wasps have struggled to maintain the high standards set during the 2016/17 campaign, in which Wallaby star Kurtley Beale guided the Coventry-based side to terrifying attacking form.
Since becoming the most potent attacking side in the Premiership under the leadership of Danny Cipriani and Dan Robson, Wasps have struggled to rid themselves of a soft underbelly that has seen their fast-paced pack fail to outlast their opponents. In addition to this flaw, Wasps suffered an injury crisis almost unheard of, paying the price for their relatively small squad size, severely hampering their early-mid-season ambitions.
Considering their electrifying, table-topping form last season, you have to say Wasps’ stocks have dropped over the last 12-months.
The news that Falcons stand out as our biggest risers this year will come as a shock to no one. Under Director of Rugby Dean Richards, Falcons have gone from regular relegation contenders to semi-finalists over the course of a mere two seasons. Such success has seemingly redeemed Richards in the eyes of many after ‘Blood Gate’, emerging at the favourite of both fans and pundits to succeed Eddie Jones in England’s top job.
Falcons’ stocks have skyrocketed this season and alongside Exeter Chiefs, are one of the great success stories in the Premiership’s history.
Leicester have seemingly been in free fall over the last five years since winning the Premiership in 2013, something that has been visibly intolerable for both fans and the governing board alike. For the first time in 15 years, Tigers have failed to qualify for the play-offs, settling for fifth place and Champions Cup qualification. For many teams this would have been an acceptable, promising finish, but Leicester Tigers are not like most other teams.
Leicester may have enjoyed success in the final stages of their domestic campaign, but the disappointments of their Champions Cup crusade in addition to their Premiership failures will not be tolerated by a squad brimming with proven Test stars.
Australian Head Coach Matt O’Connor seems to have found a stronger balance towards the latter end of the year, but considering their struggles throughout their season as a whole, Leicester have slipped another rung down the ladder. I will caveat this with the fact I believe Tigers will be on the up next year with a more settled side injected with the impact of new signings Will Spencer, Guy Thompson and David Denton on a struggling pack.
After emerging from the darkness that surrounded Mike Ford’s departure as Director of Rugby in 2016, Bath narrowly missed out on semi-final qualification in Todd Blackadder’s first season in charge last year. However, this year the loss of attack coach and right hand man Tabai Matson - back to New Zealand - earlier in the season has proven to be a catastrophic blow.
Despite widespread rumours, it seems that Blackadder will not be losing his job, but the suggestion that the former Crusaders boss could have been job hunting over the summer tells you all you need to know about both the club’s disappointments and their ambitions. Bath are undoubtedly in a worse position than they were this time last year and can consider themselves very fortunate to have qualified for Champions Cup rugby next year.
With Leinster attack coach Girvan Dempsey on his way to Bath next year to replace Matson, Bath could be looking at a rise in fortunes, having set reasonably solid foundations with their work off the ball. With luck in the injuries department and an improvement on the squad's mental fortitude when the proverbial hits the fan, Bath could well return to top four contenders next season.
So often filling the role of perennial underachievers, Gloucester seem to have turned the tide in their own favour under new Head Coach Johan Ackermann. Last season, former Cherry and Whites boss Laurie Fisher left his role with immediate effect following, in his own words, repetitive ‘complete capitulation’.
While the odd system failure reared its head at times during the 2017/18 campaign, Gloucester are a different beast under Ackermann and at one point were in serious consideration for a top four finish. The addition of Ackermann jnr to the backrow, attacking-force and hopeful England fullback Jason Woodward and the arrival of former Tigers captain Ed Slater in the second row have helped Gloucester return to something close to the strength of yesteryear.
No trophies to speak of this campaign for Gloucester after losing to Cardiff Blues in the Challenge Cup final, but they are certainly on a very promising path.
The recent headlines surrounding Sale Sharks have been far from positive, with Israel Folau, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding all linked with the Manchester-based side following their fall from grace in the public eye. However, on the pitch this season, Sale fans have been treated with an improved performance from last year’s tenth place finish.
The Sharks have jumped up the table to eighth spot, cruelly missing out on Champions Cup qualification by two points to Gloucester and Bath. With Springbok scrum-half Faf de Klerk leading from the front with his attack-minded, surprisingly abrasive game, the arrival of regular match day captain Jono Ross in the backrow and the introduction of Welsh tighthead WillGriff John, Sale are looking a far more stable prospect.
They may not have enjoyed one of the more impressive reclamations in the league this season, but Sale are certainly building something in the north. With the Curry twins firmly on the scene and imminent emergence of additional promising youngsters, next season has the potential to be very positive for Sharks fans.
After scrambling into Champions Cup qualification last season, Northampton’s progress has well and truly been sent off the rails, with Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder, forwards coach Dorian West and a host of club legends all falling victim to a much-needed overhaul.
Northampton have conceded over 50 points to Saracens on four occasions this season and let Pro14 strugglers Ospreys put 43 points past them in front of home fans. It’s fairly clear to say Saints are in a far worse position than they were this time last season.
Fortunately for the Franklin’s Gardens faithful, the imminent arrival of Hurricanes boss Chris Boyd next season is enough to fill the most pessimistic Saints supporters with hope, or at least it should do. As with Leicester, we should expect substantial improvement from the Midlands side next year.
Harlequins have suffered a very similar fate to Saints this season, falling from tremendous heights to particularly dark depths in only a handful of years. A sudden, uncomfortable drop from sixth place last season to tenth this year will have felt much like dunking your head into icy water for many a Harlequin.
As with Saints, Harlequins have also said farewell to the man in charge and appointed a promising new figure at the top of the club. After over 17-years with Harlequins, John Kingston has parted ways with the Stoop, replaced by England defence coach Paul Gustard. A reasonably successful bit of business for Harlequins, to say the least.
One of the (very) few positives for Quins fans this season is the emergence of once-in-a-generation talent Marcus Smith from the Academy and their new commercial link with the All Blacks; a deal that will surely see a handful of current New Zealand internationals and Super Rugby coaches touch down in West London next season and the ensuing years.
Oddly, the Warriors have seemingly struggled to progress this season while simultaneously standing no worse than they were 12-months ago. While no ambitious club can be truly satisfied with such stagnation, Worcester must be commended for taking a handful of scalps this season, taking down both Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs on home soil.
While the mid-season departure of Director of Rugby Gary Gold and lengthy injury-enforced absences of key men Nick Schonert, Francois Hougaard and Ryan Mills will have hampered their progress significantly, Worcester have managed to stay afloat this year. While their results at the end of the day are no better than last season, the Warriors have come a long way in a year considering the disruptions at all levels of the club, setting themselves up for success next year.
The latest in a long line of casualties, the Exiles are yet another team to fall victim to the yo-yo nature of the promotion-relegation battle. There were high hopes for Irish this year, with a host of big name signings expected to help carry them over the line to an eleventh place finish, securing Premiership rugby for another year. Alas, this is not how events transpired at the Madjeski this season. Irish’s campaign has been split into two portions, a terrible two thirds of the season curtailed with an impressive run of games to finish their brief Premiership reappearance.
You have to say the teams stocks have fallen with the expectations placed upon them after securing promotion last season, but they have some of the most experienced coaches in the Northern Hemisphere leading them in the Championship. Grand Slam winners with Ireland, Les Kiss and Declan Kidney are expected to turn the Exiles’ fortunes around in their next charge to Premiership glory in the ensuing years.
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