Tigers pitch-perfect in Premiership finale
Huw Richards
May 13, 2007

"Oh dear. The vision inevitably arises of visitors to Gloucester over the next 12 months or so being told in a John Cleese-like sotto voce 'don't mention the Premiership playoffs'." Huw Richards reports

That Gloucester remain without a single official championship after nearly 20 years is remarkable, and unfair.

While this defeat was hardly the crushing injustice of the Wasps match that marked the introduction of the Premiership final - Leicester led for much of the season and were only marginally behind Gloucester at the end of 22 matches distorted by international calls and after some knowingly calculated team selections, notably their penultimate match against Bristol - Dean Ryan is surely right when he argues that it is time for some recognition of the team that finishes top over the entire season, whether or not there are playoffs to follow.

Ryan is, though, probably wrong on one thing. When he said before the match that his team would be forgotten if it lost to Leicester, he was underlining the essential unfairness of the system.

This Gloucester team will, one suspects, return in very similar form over the next few seasons to build itself a monument visible well beyond the confines of the West of England. Marco Bortolami, his importance sadly evident in his absence at Twickenham, would get my vote as Player of the Year.

Leicester, of course, underlined their standing as English rugby's big-match specialists of the moment.

Their season has hardly been flawless, but they've shown the ability to get it pitch-perfect right when the occasion demands it - whether it be the trip to Limerick that looks to have been the trigger for the rest of the season, that spectacular first-half against the Ospreys or this weekend's seven tries-to-one destruction of Gloucester.

There is little doubt the right teams contested the final. Gloucester and Leicester were that much ahead of the pack, both the most formidable all-round and the most consistent teams in a league whose greatest virtue is its competitive depth.

You can argue about whether it is the best league or the most entertaining - for those who like their rugby played with a certain free-flowing brio the Magners Celtic, clinched by Ospreys on Saturday night, probably has the edge.

France's Heineken no-show was, one suspects, a one-season wonder. But there's no doubt about the week-in, week-out intensity of a league whose ever-increasing crowds are testimony to the appeal of a competitive depth that offers no free passes to the strongest teams, and whose weakest are far from incompetent.

Among the rest the other playoff teams, Bristol and Saracens, have inevitably most to be pleased about.

While Pat Howard's achievement compels admiration, my vote for Coach of the Year would go to Bristol's Richard Hill.

Measured on the principle that coaching is about making the best use of your resources, Hill's achievement in taking his team to the top of the table for much of the season and the final four at the end is unmatched and surely presages an elevation to the international game before many more seasons have elapsed.

Dan Ward-Smith was walking - a form of locomotion rarely visible from him on the pitch where his apparent ability to be inthree places at once suggested that he teleports rather than merely running - Player of the Year before he was injured, and David Lemi would have made an extremely short final short list.

Saracens at last seem to have cracked it and now need to convince the understandably sceptical inhabitants of Watford and district, who saw the rich promise of a decade ago dwindle into dull mediocrity, that this is not just a one-off.

Elsewhere Harlequins have copious reasons to be cheerful, their return to the Premiership after that year's sabbatical in League One successful beyond what anyone could reasonably have expected, particularly given that chastening start.

Dave Strettle and Nick Easter underlined one of the trends of the season, players who have reached the top via a scenic route encompassing a few setbacks and time in the lower divisions rather than the straight-line ascent of junior honours and academies.

How Wasps see their year will be settled next Sunday at Twickenham. Bath may well feel the same about their final against Clermont at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday evening.

Even a second-rank European trophy may feel an excellent return on a year when they've had moments of brilliance - with Nick
Abendanon's flamboyance the common factor to most - and periods when good judges reckoned them the worst team in the Premiership.

Irish too have fluctuated, while Newcastle may feel that they have done well to get through the season without too many alarums.

Which leaves the unhappy trio at the bottom. If ill-luck were quantifiable, Sale would have set a single-season Premiership record. Next season can surely only be better, assuming that this year's travails have not damaged the psyche and self-assurance of a team who were worthy champions last time out.

The final day focus was understandably on Northampton going down with all hands. This rather diverted attention from Worcester's completion of a truly great escape, which appeared to date from the point at which John Brain owned up to his team being comfortably the worst in the Premiership.

The really crucial moment may have come a little earlier, when the visited Northampton on New Year's Day. Having worked through the implications of the new scrum laws rather more effectively Saints were besieging the Worcester line.

A series of scrums went down and a Saints score, probably a penalty try, seemed certain. Instead the vital penalty award went against them. Worcester escaped and showed genuine resilience to extract the single-point victory that made all the difference at the end of the season. And with Mike Ruddock in charge, Worcester should pull away from the drop zone next time out.

Northampton's demise is already well-documented. Paul Grayson deserves some sort of award for Grace (no pun intended) under Pressure, never losing his composure or dignity under intolerable circumstances.

That he was demoted rather than fired suggests recognition that he is a fine coach-in-development of whom too much was asked too soon.

He will be back - and so too will his club after enriching League One.

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