Piers O’Conor and Mat Protheroe step up for Bristol, Newcastle left down and out while leaky Leicester require urgent repairs
1) Pat Lam’s vision gives Bristol a sharper focus
A third Premiership try of the season for Charles Piutau against Sale on Friday night, in what was his ninth league start of the campaign, was not enough to secure the win for Bristol. He has been blighted by injury throughout the season, and is obviously not alone in that, but while Bristol will have hoped for more game-time from their marquee signing, it is to their credit that they have enjoyed such a prosperous return to the Premiership having been denied his services for long parts of the campaign. In his place the youngsters Piers O’Conor and Mat Protheroe stepped up admirably and their performances are proof of Pat Lam’s vision for Bristol coming to fruition.
Newcastle’s players went into a huddle on the pitch at Kingsholm at the end of their 15th defeat of the Premiership campaign, the one that confirmed the relegation of a club who have spent most of the season at the foot of the table. It was the losers’ equivalent of a lap of honour and few words were spoken. The time for talking had passed and while a team that had finished in the top four a year before could think of itself as too strong to go down, promoted Bristol were never going to disappear quietly back to where they had emerged from. The Falcons never recovered from a dreadful start when they lost six of their first seven league matches. Close games they edged last season went against them this time, but it was their poor form at home – only three victories at Kingston Park – that cost them. The pitch there is artificial and those winter Friday nights, when opponents would sink on the soft surface, have less of a chill now. Exeter, Wasps, Gloucester and Leicester all won there by seven points or fewer; home advantage not quite what it was.
3) Tigers need summer overhaul to re-establish winning culture
Leicester have been spared a few blushes by Newcastle’s relegation. With one round left no side in the competition has leaked more points than Leicester and it was apparent a while ago that, for the first time, they will not feature in Europe’s top competition next year. With the World Cup set to deprive the Tigers of several backs, this summer will be crucial in re-establishing a winning culture and identifying the best way forward. Harlequins, still in play-off contention, were in a similar position last year and have rebounded well, as have Northampton under Chris Boyd. Leicester will be back; the million dollar question is how long it will take.
4) Saints eye-catching style leaves them on verge of play-offs
5) Second strings no substitute for leading players
Take nothing away from Saracens’ youngsters, who, led by Max Malins, demonstrated just how much strength in depth the Premiership champions have at their disposal. But while it is entirely understandable that Saracens and Exeter saw fit to field second-string sides, it is hard not to perceive Saturday’s match as an opportunity missed and wonder what CVC Capital Partners made of it all. Comparing club rugby with football is often difficult but there is an obvious parallel in that both of England’s top leagues have two teams head and shoulders above the rest and it is unthinkable that Manchester City and Liverpool would ever contest a fixture with so many leading players absent. Part of the problem is scheduling – why did this match take place so late in the season and just a week before the European Cup final? – but surely this is precisely the kind of thing CVC will be looking to avoid, having acquired the Premiership’s commercial arm.