So the 2016/17 regular season is over and it's been a topsy turvy season chock full of surprises!
As is now an annual event, I will be grading each teams performance, school report style and also giving out my team of the year and some individual 'rewards'. Just for the hell of it, and to show just how bad my pre-season predictions are, I'll also be adding in a comparison between my awful predictions and the actual finishing position.
Many people's prediction for a top spot finish pre-season, Wasps have indeed worked themselves to the top of the table and secured a home semi final, albeit finishing on the same points as Exeter. Expertly (and somewhat surprisingly) led by the resurgent and seemingly ageless Jimmy Gopperth rather than the prodigal son, Danny Cipriani, Wasps have used their combination of brutality in the pack and electric backline to leave their opponents dazed, confused and the majority of the time, defeated. Special mention to Christian Wade who equalled Dominic Chapman's Premiership try scoring record (and 4th in the all time Prem try scorers list) and also to Gopperth for finishing as the Premiership top points scorer.
Losing just 4 times and picking up 1 draw, they were the top in-game points scorers in the league with 693, although they won't be happy with conceding the 7th most points in the league with 502 conceded. An impressive bonus point win over a Saracens side who admittedly had one eye on the ECC final will raise the confidence levels for the playoffs, and with home advantage on new 'local' rivals Leicester in the semi's, you wouldn't bet against Wasps returning to the Twickenham showpiece
My prediction - 4th (mainly due to key injuries)
End of season Grade - B. Would have been an A, but the defensive issues drop them down a grade for me!
2nd Exeter Chiefs
Rob Baxter's charges are established at the top table these days, but an impressive and unprecedented, 8 (I think) bonus points wins in a row to close out the season will fill the Chiefs with confidence, although the daunting task of a visit from the end of season specialists in the form of the Sarries Wolfpack now stands between them and a Twickenham final.
Exeter's 'One Team' ethos has been underpinned this season with a string of great performances from some of the players more considered as fringe, James Short and Olly Woodburn have been devastating on the wings and the ever impressive workrate of Thomas Waldrom behind a hugely dominant and technically excellent pack have been the leading lights for the Chiefs, coupled with breakthrough seasons for youngsters like Ollie Atkins, Harry Williams, Stuart Townsend, the future at Sandy Park looks in safe hands!
My Prediction - 3rd
End of season grade - A. Not many predicted the Chiefs as a top 2 side,but a really strong showing earns them an A
Last years champs will be disappointed at a third place finish, but they still have a good shot at retaining their crowns at English and European levels. The Wolfpack defence was best in the league, as many would expect, but key defeats during the international breaks ultimately cost them a top 2 finish, making the run to the final more a more difficult prospect.
The much maligned Chris Ashton was deadly on the wing, Alex Lozowski was superb cover for Farrell and put himself into international consideration with some superb performances,and the forwards were as dominant as you'd expect, but 5 defeats and less bonus points than you'd expect, especially compared to Exeter who actually had less wins than Saracens saw the Men in Black bubble under this season.
It shows how good Saracens have been in recent years when you talk about third spot being underwhelming!!!
My Prediction - 1st (and champions)
End of season grade - B
4th Leicester Tigers
The tight race between 4th and 9th was won by Tigers, who recovered from injury problems, an average start and a change of management to put in some impressive performances across the season and managed to open a decent gap between 4th and 5th by the end of the season.
Freddie Burns finished the season with aplomb, making the decision for the Ford/Burns switch with Bath look highly contentious. Brendan O'Connor had some impressive performances in the back row, have Tigers finally found a scavenger on par with Neil Back?
The decision to replace Richard Cockerill was seen as controversial at the time, but worked out just fine for Tigers.
My Prediction - 2nd
End of season grade - A (mainly due to overcoming so much adversity)
With the investment on and off the field at Bath, 5th place will be a disappointment, not aided by injuries galore, especially in the pack, but a star studded side, they really should have been looking at top 4. One of my points in the pre season blog was I felt Bath would struggle if they got injuries, and it was one of the few things I got right!
Taulupe Faletau finished the season in great form and some grand performances from Kahn Fotuali'i and Semisa Rokoduguni were the season highlights, as well as the emergence of Max Clark in the centre, who looks a real prospect.
More consistency next season and Bath will be back in the top 4.
My Prediction - 6th
End of season grade - C
The next few spots are filled with teams who would have hoped to be higher in the league and infuriated by their own inconsistencies. Quins were another side hampered by injury and losing key men during the international windows but ultimately sealed their spot in the top 6 with a penultimate round win over Wasps and a vital bonus point in the last weekend against closest rivals Northampton.
Ably led on pitch by lineout king James Horwill in the pack and the backline was lit up by Joe Marchant and the man with the most clean breaks in the season, Tim Visser. Improvement will be expected next season, but they will have to do it without the inspirational Nick Evans, who has now retired.
My prediction - 7th
End of season grade - C-
7th Northampton Saints
Another of the inconsistent sides. Saints seemed set this season with the likes of Picamoles and Groom joining the ranks, and exciting youngster Harry Mallinder continuing to build his reputation in the Premiership.
However, Saints have struggled for consistent form throughout the season and lost out on a top 6 finish by the smallest of margins.
Rumours are rife that Picamoles could be on a FRF funded move back to his homeland, and Saints fans should be very worried if he does indeed leave as he has been amazing this season!
My prediction - 5th
End of season grade - D
8th Newcastle Falcons
The surprise package of this season and with Toby Flood and Maxime Mermoz (amongst others) confirmed for next season, the growth of the Falcons is set to continue.
Some great performances by Niki Goneva, Sinoti Sinoti and Socino in the backline coupled with Mark Wilson and Calum Green and their sterling efforts defensively (1st and 3rd in the Premiership tackle counts respectively) in the engine room, this is not a Falcons side to be trifled with.
My prediction - 12th and relegated (see.....what the f**k do I know!!!)
End of season grade - B+ - surpassed all expectations, but will not be content with 8th!!
Well. For a season so tight for the ECC places, Gloucester will be kicking themselves. Holding wins over both Saracens and Wasps in the league, but no wins over any side placed 4th to 8th (I was told that stat....If it's wrong, don't blame me, I can't be bothered to research it) and several significant leads blown in the last quarter of games, most noticeably Tigers and Quins, it's a season to forget, leaguewise.
Shining lights this season, Welsh pair Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbard were immense, Lewis Ludlow looks like a prospect and a half, Henry Trinder returning from yet another injury and the signing of try machine Matt Scott.
My prediction - 9th (holy balls, I got one right!!!)
End of season grade - F. (Any other side, D- but as I'm a Glaws fan, they get a big fat F)
10th Sale Sharks
Sale were also inconsistent (makes you start to think the league is competitive rather than all these sides being inconsistent) and will certainly be disappointed at a 10th place finish.
However, the big spotlight for Sale will be the signing (in controversial circumstances) of Denny Solomona, who in a shortened season (as he started late) managed 3rd place in the try scorers table with a more than respectable 10. Also the Curry twins joining Josh Beaumont in a young, but extremely talented back row is a sign of the future (as is the signing of Faf De Clerk for next season) and positive things ahead for Sale
My prediction 8th
End of season grade - D-
11th Worcester Warriors
Started the season on the back foot with all the shenanigans surrounding Dean Ryans departure, and on the whole, did as was expected of them, avoided relegation, took a few scalps through the season and finished a comfortable distance away from bottom spot.
The youngsters were at the fore, alongside Donncha O'Callaghan who most definitely doesn't fit into the 'youngster' category these days. Star potential in the likes of Perry Humphries and Val Rapava-Ruskin (who's heading to Gloucester next season) and Englands new 'finisher' Ben Te'o but pretty much ended up where most people expected them to. New DoR Gary Gold has released a host of players for next season, I'm very interested to see who comes in on the playing staff
My Prediction - 10th
End of season grade - C-
I thought that Bristol had enough talent coming in to keep them afloat, but alas, after so many years of trying, the Premiership return has lasted just one season.
A devastatingly bad start saw Andy Robinson replaced with Mark Tainton, who for a time threatened to turn the season around for the Warriors, but it wasn't to be.
A great mix of international excellence and raw potential has been signed up for next season, so they will be hoping for a swift return to the Premiership, although they will have lost two of this seasons stars with Gavin Henson returning to Wales and Jason Woodward joining Gloucester
My Prediction - 11th
End of season grade - F
So on with my Premiership team of the season (based on my opinions and of performances in the Premiership)
15 - Jason Woodward - Bristol - Almost single handedly saved Bris, and his consistently top drawer performances just pip Telusa Veainu of Leicester to the full bacck berth
14 - Chris Ashton - Saracens - Love him or loathe him, the guy can finish. After serving his ban, was hugely influential in just about every game he played
13 - Matt Scott - Gloucester - Was on great form for Gloucester right up to his 6 Nations injury. One of the signings of the season.
12 - Jimmy Gopperth - Wasps - Often played 12 outside Cipriani and had one of the best seasons of a great career.
11 - Christian Wade - Wasps - Record equalling season. 6 tries in a game. Pretty much says it all.
10 - Alex Lozowski - Saracens - Understudy for international call ups and injuries to Farrell, but used his gametime to really make a name for himself.
9 - Kahn Fotuali'i - Bath - his speed of thought, bullet pass and reading of the game is exceptional. Despite playing for the enemy, one of my favourite 9's to watch
1 - Ben Moon - Exeter - under the radar and under rated. Great in the loose, a brick wall at scrum time. Worthy of his place.
2 - Richard Hibbard - Gloucester - before I'm accused of bias, remember, many were shouting for Hibbard to go on the Lions tour, his post xmas form has been out of this world.
3 - Halani Aulika - Sale - Strong scrummager, loves a carry and gets a huge amount of turnovers for a prop. Another that flies under the radar
4 - Calum Green - Newcastle - absolute rock in defence and a very good lineout option.
5 - Jim Hamilton - Saracens - Had a monster of a season when Sarries have been short numbered at lock. Always a fan favourite, wherever he plays
6 - Mark Wilson - Newcastle - Top tackler for the season. Must be at least in consideration for an Autumn call from Eddie Jones.
7 - Thomas Young - Wasps - Son of the gaffer always has to work a little harder, and Thomas has been exceptional this season, seamlessly replacing the departed George Smith and the often absent James Haskell.
8 - Thomas Waldrom - Exeter - I know, I know, Picamoles..... but based on Premiership performances, Waldrom has more minutes, carries and meters to his name, still knows where the tryline is. I know he's not everyones cup of tea, but he's a destroyer.
I was going to do player of the season and all that malarkey too, but I may leave that til next week
3 games left in this Premiership season. 4 teams can be the champion. I'll stick my neck out and say....the winner of Chiefs vs Sarries will win it. Or Wasps. Or maybe Leicester. The way this season has gone, I just don't know!!!