In this season, of all seasons, it was fitting that the final round would end with plenty of late drama with two matches decided by final penalty kicks and apart from the Exeter game squeakily close scorelines across the games.
One of the keenest fought fixtures involved fights for the play offs with both Northampton Saints and Quins hungry to secure a win and nail that fourth place and the opportunity to dream of Twickenham.
Northampton Saints are a vastly improved team under Chris Boyd who has steered them majestically up the table whilst playing some gorgeous rugby. However, this weekend their lack of grunt in the engine room told and Exeter flexed their muscles to end up comfortable winners down in Sandy Park. This win should have left the door wide open for Quins to canter in if they could have scraped 2 points, they would have crept into fourth above the Saints. Wasps with nothing to play for looked enterprising and energised with the cohort of departing players including Elliott Daly and Joe Simpson saying goodbye in style. In truth Quins were so, so close to that 4th place with a final long-distance penalty kick falling agonisingly short and denying them the snatched victory and a playoff place. It has still been a good season for the London men who despite not winning a huge amount of games stiffened up their defence conceding far fewer tries than last season and thus hanging in games and piling up a significant amount of losing bonus points. Paul Gustard now must start to re-build the squad in his own image and layer on more of an attacking threat to balance out the improved defence.
The rest of the positions and European places were also decided with Quins and Bath picking up Top 6 finishes so entry to the Champions Cup. Sale gave themselves a sniff with the 20th place in the Cup available through a convoluted process which will need La Rochelle to finish in the top 6 in the French league to pave the way.
I think it is fair to say most of us are fairly gob smacked at the plight of the Leicester Tigers. Their narrow loss to Bath condemned them to their lowest league finish sitting in 11th - something not seen since around 1938. The eternal optimism of sport means I am sure fans are now focussing on next season and with a massive clear out of players hoping the club starts to rebuild. It may be that we never see Leicester right back at the top again as so much has changed around them. Their model which was for so many years hugely successful and delivered a multitude of silverware has been surpassed by new money, new coaching structures and big signings across the whole of the league. Leicester has lost its glamour and without the chance of winning lots of trophies players are looking elsewhere for either improved terms or the chance to compete in big European games.
Despite a quick flurry of excitement around changes to the final top order the Premiership Semi Finals are - as expected - a re-match with Exeter v Northampton and Saracens taking on a resurgent and dangerous Gloucester at Allianz Park.
We all love an upset and a challenge to the top order in any sport so it would be good to see one of Saints or Gloucester pull off a tough away win. If Gloucester had been playing Exeter, then I would have given them a good chance of scattering apples as they have beaten The Chiefs in the Champions Cup pool match. As it is the Cherry & Whites need to take on the newly crowned European champions and find a way to negate their power game. Gloucester will however travel to north London with ambition, desire and no fear knowing that they have developed under Ackerman into a top side with all sorts of weapons at their disposal. Cipriani will I am sure have been studying intently the line speed of Saracens and hatching plots to deal with it through either moving the ball wide as fast as possible or using a tactical kicking game. If you look at that Gloucester side and indeed a potential bench, then you must feel this is far from a foregone conclusion. Ackerman will be aware that their victory against Saracens at Kingsholm was during the Six Nations so this will be a bigger challenge against a slew of British & Irish Lions. Saracens will need to summon up the same desire they displayed against Leinster to halt the west country sides momentum and will themselves have some challenges in dealing with a very threatening attack and a Gloucester team that have been steadily getting better and better.
Exeter showed the last few games were an aberration and will feel they now have the measure of Northampton when they take them on a week later. You can see the side gelling during the game and shaking off the rustiness built up over a period when they really did have nothing to play for. I suspect Rob Baxter was pleased there was a whiff of danger to this last round fixture. A loss in Round 22 could have meant missing out on top place giving them a slightly tougher opponent in the semi final and this re focussed his players and got them back to their dynamic and powerful best.
In the Saints favour they may be able to finally add Dylan Hartley to the team sheet and that can only give needed strength to their pack. Their live wire and hugely influential scrum half Cobus Rienach seemed to pick up a knock so there will be mass finger crossing in the West Midlands hoping he is fit to play. How important has he been to the Saints! Is an upset on the cards here? I personally can’t see Saints being able to down Exeter unless they play a game of huge discipline to deny Chiefs the comfort factor of kicking to the 5m line for a rolling maul score. The Saints attack and their half back pairing is on fire now so nothing should be ruled out with the chance they score a bucket load of tries. You would never have backed Northampton to win twice in a row at Sandy Park so the loss last weekend to me still means they are still in the hunt.
The green, green grass of Twickenham awaits the winners of this coming weekend’s two games. Are we finally going to be able to say it is Gloucester’s year? See Exeter win the trophy for only the second time after coming top of the league 4 times? Watch dark horses Saints sneak up on the rails from 4th position to 1st? Or indeed witness Saracens do the double. Who’s your money on?