LONDON, ENGLAND – 2014 was a good year for the Premiership, but 2015 promises to be even better. There’s a tight race for the playoff spots and the European Rugby Champions Cup bids, and an unprecedented level of competitive equality. Here at RugbyWrapUp, we take a look at each club’s New Year’s Resolutions, to make sure they make the most out of the upcoming campaign.
It’s hard to imagine a better 2014 for Northampton. The Saints won the Premiership and the Amlin Cup, and are in pole position once more at the halfway point. However, the Saints will have to adjust to life without Samu Manoa and Salesi Ma’afu after this season. A major challenge for Jim Mallinder will be adjusting to the diminished power in the forwards. For now, the Saints can resolve to continue their march towards a second consecutive title, while running the best defense in the Premiership.
Bath have continued their meteoric ascent to the top of the table, with several key players coming of age. They appeared to have a playoff place well in hand last season, before collapsing down the stretch to allow Harlequins to nip into the semifinals. Mike Ford cannot afford another repeat. His seat is secure at the moment, but if Bath collapse for the second straight season (a prospect that looks extremely unlikely at the moment), questions will be asked at the Recreation Ground. A realistic goal for Bath is the final, although the club’s Twitter account may be getting a little too excited. They’ve been retweeting every supporter who has bought tickets to the title game, a move that could inspire ridicule come May. Bath resolve to maintain their current form, and select a consistent starting fifteen.
Sarries occupy their customary playoff position at the moment, but there have been worrying signs from the Allianz. Saracens have not won a single game against the top 5 sides, losing to Northampton, Exeter, and Bath and drawing Leicester. They have won all the matches they are supposed to, but the poor record does not reflect well upon their playoff hopes or of their prospects in the knockout stages of the ERCC, should they reach the quarterfinal. Saracens resolve to play better on the big stage, especially away from home.
The Chiefs have been the pleasant surprise of the year, coming back from a miserable 2013-14 to occupy a playoff spot at the midseason marker. Exeter are one of the two teams that has beaten Northampton this season, but they have struggled against their fellow competitors for the fourth place spot. The Chiefs attack has been exceptional, spearheaded by barnstorming number 8 Thomas Waldrom, who leads the Premiership with eight tries. One worry is that their back line lacks a bit of punch, especially when missing Jack Nowell. Waldrom’s scoring form may not be sustainable, and Exeter must resolve to find other threats in the pack, lest they become one-dimensional.
The Tigers have started another season in poor form, but somehow hang around the fringes of the playoff picture. It’s a balancing act that Richard Cockerill has somehow mastered, but it backfired last year when the Tigers lost an away semifinal to eventual champions Northampton. If the Tigers miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03, Cockerill will be the man on the chopping block. The Tigers have the longest injury list in the Premiership, but they should still have enough quality to perform at a higher level than they have in the first half of the season. The Tigers have the fourth worst defense in the league, and they should resolve to get healthy and play to their considerable potential. An attacking gameplan would be a start, taking advantage of their impressive backline.
Wasps have cobbled together an impressive season, led by the ageless Andy Goode. Goode has 142 points on the season, ranking second in the Premiership, and his distribution has been excellent from fly-half. Wasps back three have been unleashed, and Dai Young’s gameplans are working to perfection against lower table sides. However, Wasps still have difficulty against the top tier, something they will have to remedy if they hope to occupy their current heady place in the table at the end of the season. Wasps must resolve to win at least two matches against fellow playoff positioned sides to make themselves into realistic contenders.
Before last weekend’s demolition by Wasps, Sale had put together a pretty decent season behind Danny Cipriani. As ever, the forward pack is Sale’s weakness, and they have been pushed off their own scrum at times this season. Sale have the most even point differential in the league this season, clocking in at -4. Their point totals are right at the middle of the pack. If the Sharks aren’t careful, they will wind up in a playoff with the seventh placed French club for a spot in next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. Sale must resolve to avoid that fate and qualify directly by securing a position in the top 6. They are simply too inconsistent from match to match to rely upon their other means of advancement.
It has been a bitterly disappointing first season for Joe Marler’s captaincy. The prop has been individually solid, but injuries have taken their toll on Quins, who have played without Nick Evans for extended periods this season, and will be missing Chris Robshaw for the majority of matches as well, following his injury induced absence and his international duties. Danny Care’s loss of form has hit Harlequins’ offensively, and a return to the playoffs looks unlikely. Tim Swiel has played well after a shaky first impression, but Evans’ injury underlines a desperate need for Quins; developing potential successors in both of the halfback positions. At the moment, they lack high-quality second options in both spots. Swiel is not a long-term answer, since he will likely return to South Africa at the end of the season, while Ben Botica needs an extended injury-free run to inspire confidence. Quins must resolve to build for the future, since it appears that their new golden age is no longer resting on solid foundations.
Gloucester have been poor for the second consecutive year, following major signings during the summer. However, unlike Matt Kvesic’s problems adjusting to life in the West Country, Richard Hibbard and Greig Laidlaw have slotted into the side smoothly. Instead, a huge drop-off for last season’s breakout star, Billy Twelvetrees and major defensive frailties have doomed the side to mediocrity once more. Gloucester must resolve to tighten up their backline defense, and execute in the final third of the field.
Newcastle have impressed at times this term, playing solid matches against Harlequins, Northampton, and Saracens in the past three weeks and winning matches at home versus Exeter and Gloucester. Newcastle do have some problems off the field. They average only 6,000 fans at the gate, the second lowest figure in the league next to London Welsh. As Wasps found out, if you are to consistently compete in the Premiership, a solid financial base must be laid. Newcastle must resolve to galvanize their support. Even an additional 2,000 supporters per match would make a massive difference and allow for some vital signings to increase depth.
The Exiles began 2014 with a bold statement of intent from their new owner, who claimed they were embarking on a new era of star player signings and success on the field. Though James O’Connor put in a cameo for the Irish, it was a mere pit stop and the investors seem to have found other places to focus their efforts. The Exiles are now in a familiar position, serving time at the bottom of the table with no star players to speak of. Marland Yarde’s exit was predictable, but it robbed the Exiles of their most familiar and talented player. Until the Exiles’ ownership is able to actually make good on their vows, things will stay the same at the Madjeski. London Irish must resolve to live up their ownership’s promises, and deliver a worthy product on the field.
Try not to embarrass themselves any further. A point differential of -436 through half the season makes a serious argument for a new relegation and promotion system. The Exiles’ efforts at the end of games have been pathetic, and multiple 50 point losses point to a team that is not equipped to compete at the top level.
This weekend saw the 12th round of Premiership action. Wasps secured a 41-15 bonus point win against Sale and moved into fourth place on the table. Leicester took revenge for their humiliation at the Rec earlier this year, triumphing 17-8 over Bath at Welford Road. Exeter lost a thriller to Gloucester, 26-25, in a match featuring one of the best second halves in recent memory. Saracens put forth a limp effort, but clung on to win 22-6 against London Irish. London Welsh played one of their closest matches all year against Harlequins, losing by single digits, 23-14. On Friday, Northampton beat Newcastle in a surprisingly thrilling 39-31 match at Franklin’s Gardens.