Saracens and Exeter Chiefs confirmed they are the best two sides in the Gallagher Premiership at the weekend. In other breaking news, it has been announced that the Pope is catholic and bears do indeed relieve themselves in the woods.
While the top two’s dominant victories over Gloucester and Northampton Saints were as expected as they were imposing, they did highlight the sheer gulf between the league’s best and, well, the rest.
Both teams are deserving of praise and whichever goes on to lift the trophy in the final this weekend will be worthy.
At times, this has been a compelling season; however, the thrill has tended to come from a true relegation dog fight for the first time in years, while the fluctuations in form of the bottom 10 has kept the table close and malleable. In comparison, the top two has been a relatively sedate procession – Exeter’s last-minute wobble a case of overly-early achievement rather than actual pressure on their status.
Behind them, the challengers have failed to really fire. Although Gloucester earned their third place thanks to a noticeable improvement in consistency, they were still 10 league points of Saracens and 15 in the actual playoff match. The Saints earned their game with Exeter thanks to a late run of form and Harlequins best efforts to avoid any further rugby after the regular season finished. You never felt either would unduly trouble the league’s duopoly.
And there is scant reason to think we will see a difference next season. Both the leading teams will only get better – Saracens adding Elliot Daly to their ranks, while Exeter have lured Stuart Hogg south of the border. Two game-breaking live-wire talents to add to already potent back lines.
Saracens and Exeter are also built around young(ish) talent – for Saracens, it is the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, and the Vunipolas; while at Exeter you have Henry Slade, the Simmonds brothers, Jonny Hill and Jack Nowell. This will mean minimal disruption in the next few seasons, while, ominously, many of these key players are only just approaching the peak of their careers.
On the flipside, there is a team like Harlequins. Undoubtedly looking much better under new coach Paul Gustard, they are caught between two generations. Joe Marchant, Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt may be the future of the club, but they are also likely to lose the vastly experienced core of Mike Brown, Danny Care, Chris Robshaw and their 859 club caps over the course of the next few seasons, while James Horwill will hang up his boots after the BaaBaas match this weekend. They will leave a big hole to fill.
You would hope both Gloucester and Northampton can kick on. They have recruited well with their coaches – both Johan Ackermann and Chris Boyd clearly get Northern Hemisphere rugby and its nuances and they are getting the best out of their respective squads. There is talent and structure there, whether it is enough to close that yawning points gap is another matter.
Looking beyond the top five, it is tricky to see where the fight will come from. Bath, despite their financial muscle and array of top players are another frustratingly inconsistent team and are set for a new coach next season once again. Sale always seem to be on the cusp of having a good team, yet never quite click. Wasps appear intent on buying big names without managing to form a cohesive team, while simultaneously concentrating their finances on a smaller and smaller squad. Next year they are losing both Daly and Nathan Hughes. Worcester seem perennially doomed to finish in the bottom quarter, with limited appetite to push up.
And what of Leicester Tigers? The still falling giants, arguably spiralling down due to a mix of weak governance and confusion about their playing identity. Much like their football counterparts, Manchester United, English rugby’s most successful club is in dire need of hitting the reset button. For all the player ability in their squad, it will likely be several years (and the influx of a new pack) before they are ready to fight for honours again.
Meanwhile, London Irish return next season and have been flashing the cash with serious intent – what that will amount to, whether they emulate Bristol Bears or the doomed campaign of London Welsh, remains to be seen.
Speaking of Bristol and they are the team in which I can see glimmers of real potential. They have had some blips, but Pat Lam has a clear idea for how they are going to play and is confidently building a squad which is making all the right noises. Lam is a shrewd coach and while he has not been afraid to open the cheque-book, they have been canny signings, buying players he knows fit his vision, rather than names for names’ sake.
He is also developing a strong foundation of young talent – recognised by the recent call ups of Piers O’Conor and Callum Sheedy to the England XV to take on the Barbarians this weekend. They may be a year or two off challenging at the very top, but there is a clear vision and strong culture in place that I think will bring reward before too long.
What may give us hope of a more competitive league next season is the World Cup. Much as France have tended to prosper in the Six Nations that follow Lions tours, so those teams with fewer internationals could benefit from the extended workload of the bigger teams’ biggest names. Saracens will suffer more than most, while the likes of Leicester could see their seasons dangerously derailed.
A team such as Gloucester, Bristol or Sale with a clutch of fringe talent or out-of-favour internationals may find themselves able to make early inroads, and then maintain their push as fatigue takes its toll on those involved in Japan.
Exeter and Saracens may be some way ahead of the chasing pack but for the good of the league, they need genuine competition next season to keep the domestic game exciting. Where that challenge comes from, however, remains to be seen.
By Henry Ker