The outcome of the Aviva premiership was uncertain right up to the final whistle on the final day when Saracens became the first team to finish outside the top 2 to win the title. We had the most competitive struggle for playoff places we have ever seen with every team from 1st placed to 7th having a legitimate chance of qualification with only 2 rounds of fixtures left in the regular season. This, combined with the added incentive of qualification for Europe’s elite competition – the European Rugby Champions Cup, ensured that the standard of competition never slipped from round 1 all the way to round 22.
The only disappointment to speak of is the abysmal efforts of London Welsh who are solely responsible for what little battle for relegation there was this season; a lot of improvement is required from them if they are to reclaim their place in the top tier of English rugby next year. The quality of which was also evident in the English championship, where we saw one of the most closely contested play off finals in the league’s history; Worcester inched ahead of Bristol with seconds left on the clock to clinch their place in the premiership, with only a point separating the teams after 2 gripping games of ambitious, free-flowing rugby. Fans were certainly kept on their toes with the margins between success and failure getting smaller and smaller as the season progressed; it made for some extraordinarily tense moments that were often the difference between a successful campaign and a disappointing one.
With so many options to choose from in such a closely fought contest for supremacy in England, you’d think I’d have difficulty picking out just one landmark moment that summed up the season, but actually it is a rather simple choice for me. Bath were comfortably the most entertaining team to watch on the field this season with a far more innovative skill-based game that has been a breath of fresh air in a league that is susceptible an unimaginative style of offensive rugby. They were rewarded with a place in the Premiership final and a European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final; they were very unlucky to come up just short in both competitions but proved a lot of critics wrong along the way. A team that has been capable of big things but hasn’t lived up to expectation for a long time now, they burst into life and announced themselves as viable title contenders and were a welcome addition to the championship picture. The highlight of their season is undoubtedly their thrashing of long-standing rivals, Leicester. Whilst the rivalry is not as ferocious as most Northampton Leicester encounters, it is steeped in tradition and means a lot to the passionate Bath supporters who got to see their side romp to a 45-0 victory at home, an unheard of and truly astonishing feat against the greatly-feared 10 time champions. This to me summed up how far Bath had come along as a side; devastated to not make the play-offs last season and determined to make their mark this season. It exemplified everything that was good about the Premiership this season and can be classed as a defining moment in this instalment of the competition.
The intensity of this year’s title race ensured a high standard of rugby throughout the competition which left the England coaches more than a little spoilt for choice when determining who the lucky pool of players would be to represent their country in a World Cup on home soil. Many of those chosen featured in the recent six nations campaign and whilst England fell just short yet again, there are still a lot of positive signs to take from this year’s championship. It appears that Lancaster’s formula of choosing in form players in favour of the old guard has paid off and ensured a tough decision for who the starting XV should be to stride onto the Twickenham turf against Fiji in the World Cup opener. Whilst Lancaster has been forced to drop a number of his players for disciplinary reasons, he luckily has strong enough depth in the squad that it shouldn’t become too much of an issue. One such player to strengthen the ranks is Jonathan Joseph – the outside centre has been in imperious form for both Bath and England this season and a huge threat going forward; more than just a candidate to start in the fixture. James Haskell is yet another player who has benefited from the scale of competition in the Premiership this season. Having rediscovered some of his form, he has proved a great leader and ball-carrier. He has been an inspiration and has made a huge contribution in transforming Wasps from a side on the brink into a reborn European powerhouse. These call-ups to the national side, it is fair to say, were somewhat unexpected prior to the beginning of the season but have epitomised why this year’s domestic competition has greatly bolstered England’s ranks ahead of the World Cup. These players would not have been able to achieve such form without the necessary standard of competition to stand them in good stead for the trials of international rugby. With the Six Nations title that slipped through their grasp once again still fresh in the memory, and the prospect of a potential home World Cup victory in sight, it is time for the side to deliver. The standard of the Premiership this season has given them the best chance of performing on the World stage, now it is time to see if they can live up to all the promise by finally making the last step that has eluded them up until this point and recapturing their former glory in the most anticipated installment of the Rugby World Cup ever.