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Review of the Year – Part One

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We’re looking back on another thrilling year in Aviva Premiership Rugby – here we look back at January to April 2015.

See Parts Two and Three of the Review of the Year here.

JANUARY

Just 48 hours after New Year’s Eve Stephen Myler could be excused for having another heavy head as he brought in 2015 by surpassing the 2,000-point barrier in Aviva Premiership Rugby.

The milestone arrived on January 2 as Northampton Saints beat Newcastle Falcons 39-31, fly-half Myler crossing for the game’s first try en route to finishing up with a personal haul of 17 points.

And there was plenty more for Saints fans to celebrate as the victory over Newcastle Falcons was their seventh straight in all competitions, opening up a six-point lead at the top of the table in the process.

The following day Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester Rugby served up a treat for the fans at Sandy Park as the Cherry & Whites emerged victorious 26-25.

The first half yielded just two Greig Laidlaw penalties but Jack Nowell and Matt Jess responded with two tries in breakneck fashion for Exeter Chiefs, before Tom Savage quickly dotted down himself.

Counterparts Ben Morgan and Thomas Waldrom then swapped tries but Steenson failed to add the extras to the latter as his effort rebounded off the post.

The kick was to prove crucial as Laidlaw hit 11 points and Billy Twelvetrees scored a drop-goal, while Steenson could only notch ten from the tee.

Meanwhile, David Strettle crossed the whitewash twice and Owen Farrell added four penalties as Saracens beat London Irish 22-6 at Allianz Park.

And on Sunday January 4 Leicester Tigers made amends for their record Aviva Premiership Rugby defeat to Bath Rugby earlier this season with a gritty 17-8 win at Welford Road, while Wasps won 41-16 against Sale Sharks and Harlequins beat London Welsh 24-13 at the Kassam Stadium.

In round 13 Gloucester were once again involved in a cracker as James Hook slotted a last-gasp penalty to lead the Cherry & Whites to a dramatic 24-23 victory over Saracens at Kingsholm on Friday January 9.

However, it wasn’t all good news for Gloucester as Ben Morgan suffered a broken ankle that kept him out of the RBS 6 Nations.

The excitement spilled over into Saturday as Sam Burgess scored his first ever Aviva Premiership Rugby try as Bath beat Wasps 39-26 at the Rec, while Harlequins beat Leicester Tigers 32-12 and Sale Sharks reinforced their play-off credentials with a 20-7 home victory over Northampton Saints.

And the round ended with Shane Geraghty’s last-gasp drop goal leading London Irish to a 28-26 victory over Exeter Chiefs, while Sinoti Sinoti caused havoc as Newcastle Falcons beat London Welsh 38-7 at Kingston Park.

From here on out for the rest of January, European rugby took centre stage with Bath advancing from their Champions Cup pool as winners, while Saints, Wasps and Saracens joined them in the knockout stages.

And in the Challenge Cup London Irish, Gloucester and Exeter Chiefs all won their pool with Newcastle Falcons also advancing as one of the three highest-scoring second-placed teams.

 
FEBRUARY

George Ford, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph served notice of the force they could go on to become on the international stage as the Bath Rugby trio inspired a famous English comeback in Wales at the RBS 6 Nations.

In a Millennium Stadium classic, Watson scored his first try for England but Wales led 16-8 at half-time thanks to Rhys Webb and the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar.

But the Red Rose were not to be denied – Joseph provided the rocket just after the break before the nerveless Ford clinched a 21-17 victory from the tee.

Indeed Joseph would be the true breakout star of the Championship, crossing twice in the 47-17 rout of Italy a week later to join Billy Vunipola, Ben Youngs, Danny Cipriani and Nick Easter in crossing the whitewash.

Aviva Premiership Rugby’s representation at the tournament was by no means limited to England however – with most notably Gloucester Rugby scrum-half Greig Laidlaw skippering Scotland.

Meanwhile, back in Aviva Premiership Rugby, the league was returning from a four-week break and it was a battle of the boots under the Friday Night Lights at Welford Road.

Leicester’s Freddie Burns edged Gloucester’s James Hook by five penalties to six as he led his side to an important 18-15 win, and elsewhere in Round 14, Saracens started to find the form that would see them crowned champions with a 34-24 triumph over Bath.

But it was the week after that saw the form book shredded as, despite the best efforts of Elliot Daly, Wasps were held to a 23-23 draw at Newcastle Falcons.

Daly set up Rob Miller and then scored one himself in two pulsating first-half minutes, but a Juan Pablo Socino-inspired Newcastle came roaring back and Wasps were forced to rely on a converted Guy Thompson score to draw level.

That set up a weekend full of thrills and spills – not least at the AJ Bell Stadium where Sale Sharks held on after Sam Tuitupou and Jonathan Mills tries to down Saracens, who had won just one Aviva Premiership Rugby game away from home since September.

Leicester, Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs all won on the road in Round 15 – but the latter’s greatest moment of the month came right at the end.

For the first time in Aviva Premiership Rugby Chiefs recorded a win over their fierce rivals Bath Rugby as Will Chudley’s second-half opportunistic score, allied to ten points from Henry Slade, secured a 16-6 victory in Round 16.

 
MARCH

Dai Young had plenty to smile about on the opening day of March as the Wasps director of rugby watched his side beat Gloucester Rugby 32-21 – and his son Thomas bagged a try double.

It was not plain sailing for the rest of the month, though, as Wasps suffered their first defeat at the Ricoh Arena – 26-17 at the hands of Saracens – before going down 52-30 at Northampton Saints, despite a Christian Wade hat-trick.

That, however, was not the highest-scoring Aviva Premiership Rugby clash of the month, with Exeter Chiefs running in eight tries at Sandy Park to beat struggling London Welsh 74-19.

Gloucester and Northampton played out a thrilling 33-33 draw, while Saracens ensured the month ended in record-breaking fashion, beating Harlequins 42-14 at Wembley in front of 84,068 spectators – the highest-ever attendance for a club rugby match.

Away from the league, the draw was made for the Singha Premiership Rugby 7s while the Six Nations came to a thrilling conclusion, with Ireland retaining their title on points difference.

Leicester Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs and Exeter Chiefs wing Jack Nowell scored two tries each as England beat France 55-35 in the tournament finale but it was just not enough to pinch the trophy from the men in green.

March also saw the LV= Cup final staged at Franklin’s Gardens, where Saracens went head-to-head with reigning champions Exeter.

Max Bodilly scored two tries for the Chiefs but that tally was matched by Saracens winger David Strettle, while Nick de Jager also crossed over.

And the contest was ultimately decided by scrum-half Ben Spencer, who held his nerve to bisect the posts with a last-minute penalty and secure a 23-20 triumph for Saracens.

It was a busy month for Harlequins, too, with veteran winger Ugo Monye announcing his retirement after 12 seasons with the club and more than 150 Aviva Premiership Rugby appearances.

They were quick to fill those boots, however, by announcing the signing of Scotland winger Tim Visser – while it was also revealed British & Irish Lions prop Adam Jones would be Stoop-bound in the summer.

 
APRIL

A busy April kicked off with the quarter-finals of the European Rugby Champions Cup, where all four Aviva Premiership Rugby sides faced daunting away games.

Traditionally home sides win about three quarters of European knock-out games, and so it proved in the Champions Cup, with Saracens the English team to progress.

The eventual Aviva Premiership Rugby champions travelled to Paris to take on Racing Métro and showed all their determination to stay in touch in a game in which they were on the back foot for the majority of the match.

Showing their trademark defensive solidity, Saracens trailed by two points going into the final seconds. They were then awarded a penalty on halfway, and up stepped Argentina centre Marcelo Bosch from more than 50 metres to sneak the 12-11 win.

Elsewhere in the Champions Cup Bath Rugby were narrowly beaten at Leinster, scoring two tries to none but falling to the boot of Ian Madigan.

Wasps went down to defending champions Toulon, but not without giving them a scare with a second-half comeback, while Northampton Saints were well-beaten in Clermont.

In the Challenge Cup it was a more successful weekend for English sides, with Gloucester Rugby seeing off Connacht in their quarter-final, to set up an all Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final against Exeter Chiefs.

The Chiefs had beaten Newcastle Falcons in their last eight clash with a stunning performance at Sandy Park.
Returning to domestic action, there was everything to play for in the race for play-off and European spots.

Exeter maintained their European form in the league with an important win over leaders Northampton, while another huge game near the top saw Saracens down Leicester Tigers.

Both Exeter and Saracens were beaten a week later, in the semi-finals of their respective European competitions.

A Wesley Fofana try gave Clermont a narrow win on French soil in the Champions Cup, while the Chiefs had no answer away to West Country rivals Gloucester.

That meant that the Cherry and Whites were England’s flag bearers in Europe as they set up a Challenge Cup final date with Edinburgh.

And a week later they were involved in arguably one of the games of the season, overcoming a 17-point deficit with just over ten minutes remaining to beat Newcastle 42-40.

It was a weekend of tight finishes as Harlequins crept past Sale Sharks in Salford, while Saints beat Saracens to cement their place at the top of the table.
 

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