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Review of the Year – Part Two

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

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

MAY

All the hours in the gym, the gruelling pre-season, every early morning start is done with the month of May in mind.

An entire season comes down to how you perform when the big games roll around, and it’s the very best teams who step up when silverware is on the line.

That was no different in 2015, as Saracens peaked at the perfect moment to claim Aviva Premiership Rugby glory.

They so nearly didn’t have the opportunity though as the battle for play-off spots went down to the wire.

A shock loss at home to Exeter Chiefs on the penultimate day left Saracens just outside the play-off places.

With Leicester Tigers winning at home to Northampton Saints, Saracens needed to outscore the Chiefs on the final day of the season, and despite Exeter’s best efforts – a 44-16 win over Sale Sharks – Mark McCall’s men put London Welsh to the sword to secure fourth place.

In the second most prolific round in the history of Aviva Premiership Rugby, an incredible 52 tries were scored, including a 40-40 draw between London Irish and Wasps.

Chris Ashton also managed three tries in five minutes against London Welsh, the fastest-ever effort in the league.

Those results set up a rematch of the 2014 final as Saracens travelled to Northampton for their semi-final, while Bath Rugby aimed for a first final appearance since 2004 when they hosted Leicester.

At Franklin’s Gardens, first-place finishers Saints just couldn’t find a way past the ferocious tackling of Jacques Burger, as well as the dead-eye kicking of Owen Farrell.

The 29-24 victory offered some revenge for Saracens after their Final defeat a year previously, and made them only the third fourth seed to reach the showpiece.

Later in the day it was the Matt Banahan show, as the Bath winger became the first man to score a hat-trick in an Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final. The West Country side cruised to a 47-10 win as their young English core fired from the off.

A tantalising final at Twickenham was played out in glorious sunshine as the young pretenders from Bath tried to knock off the big game experience of Saracens.

Mike Ford’s side had been so impressive against the Tigers, but were on the back foot early conceding three quick-fire tries from Farrell, Jamie George and Chris Wyles.

They trailed 25-3 at half-time and looked dead and buried but 13 unanswered points in the first 20 minutes after the break gave them hope.

They were still down by two scores though, and Saracens showed their experience to see the game out, Farrell slotting a third penalty to take his personal tally to 18 in the 28-16 win.

With a first Aviva Premiership Rugby title since 2011, Saracens established themselves as the team to beat in English rugby, and they continued that form heading into the new season.

It wasn’t all about Aviva Premiership Rugby though, with Gloucester Rugby securing some silverware of their own as they beat Edinburgh 19-13 in the final of the European Challenge Cup on May 1. That proved to be a sign of things to come for English teams in Europe…
 
JUNE

In the wake of an astonishing 2015 Aviva Premiership Rugby final that saw the league’s former ‘nearly men’ triumph at Twickenham, Saracens moved into June newly crowned as champions and everyone’s thoughts switched towards the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

With the Aviva Premiership Rugby season taking a different shape to accommodate the World Cup, clubs looked to bolster their ranks and June saw a number of ins and outs.

David Strettle confirmed he was on his way out of Saracens having lifted the Aviva Premiership Rugby trophy, but Leicester Tigers full-back Mathew Tait committed his future to the club and signed a new contract as did Exeter Chiefs’ Namibian import Byron McGuigan.

Former England U20s lock Dom Barrow moved south from Newcastle Falcons to Leicester, and prop James Johnston and back-row Alex Rieder made the switch to Wasps.

And June was also a big month in the history of the Newcastle Falcons, as they announced they had bought their Kingston Park ground back from Northumbria University, after leasing the site since 2007.

Meanwhile on the international scene, a smorgasbord of Aviva Premiership Rugby talent was in action during the World Rugby U20 Championship, where England surged to the final in defence of their title.

Bath Rugby’s Charlie Ewels led the side in Italy, where they finished the group stage of the competition behind France.

Comfortable wins over Japan and Wales were followed by a 30-18 loss to the French, but England progressed to the semi-finals as highest-placed runners-up courtesy of Australia’s heavy defeat to South Africa.

Ewels’ club teammate Rory Jennings impressed in particular for the Red Rose in the group stages, the fly-half successful with 12 of his 15 attempts off the kicking tee and pulling the strings in midfield.

Saracens full-back Aaron Morris chipped in with a try double against Japan, while Exeter Chiefs back-row Sam Skinner also burrowed over in both of England’s opening victories.

His clubmate Stuart Townsend however was unlucky to pick up an injury against Wales after scoring three times in the opening two matches.

England were impressive in the semi-finals to see off a hugely physical South Africa side 28-20, with Harlequins No.8 James Chisholm and Sarries' centre Nick Tompkins going over, but could not defend their title against an imperious New Zealand side in the final.

Bath centre Max Clark got England’s only try against the All Blacks in the 21-16 defeat, and Jennings ended the competition with 51 points to his name.

 
JULY
While rugby matters on the pitch were taking their summer break, there was still plenty going on behind the scenes – not least the announcing of the season’s Aviva Premiership Rugby fixtures at the start of the month.

Five weeks since Saracens lifted the Aviva Premiership Rugby trophy at Twickenham, Mark McCall’s men started planning for a home game against Sale Sharks on the opening day of the season.

While league newcomers Worcester Warriors could lick their lips at the prospect of a home clash with Northampton Saints, beaten finalists Bath Rugby were set to host Exeter Chiefs.

And it was not just the league fixtures which were released during the month with the news emerging that Aviva Premiership Rugby and BT Sport had signed a new six-year deal to continue showing live rugby.

This included the tenth anniversary London double header at the end of November with Saracens scheduled to take on Worcester Warriors at Twickenham followed by London Irish against Wasps.

In terms of movers and shakers, the signing of Alex Rogers for Newcastle Falcons was one of the early deals of the month alongside tighthead prop Paddy Ryan from French side Libourne while Sale Sharks bolstered their coaching ranks with the signing of rugby league legend Paul Deacon as attack/skills coach and scrum-half Peter Stringer got to grips with his new surroundings at the AJ Bell Stadium.

The middle of the month saw Saracens announce that former Waratahs hooker Dave Porecki would join on a short-term deal as cover for the World Cup while shortly afterwards winger James Short, who famously scored the winning try in the 2011 Aviva Premiership Rugby final, rubberstamped his switch from London Irish to Exeter Chiefs.

New Zealand-born No.8 Matthew Luamanu was another to sign to a club before the month was out with Harlequins moving for the powerful back row forward.

It was also a positive time for Gloucester Rugby fans with talented English duo Tom Savage and Charlie Sharples agreeing new long-term contracts to extend their stays at Kingsholm.

Unfortunately injury forced two centres to bring the curtain down on their careers with Bath’s Ben Williams and Harlequins and former English international Jordan Turner-Hall announcing their retirements.

Away from Aviva Premiership Rugby World Cup preparations continued at pace with the 45-strong England squad flying out to Denver on the July 10th while Wales were also put through their paces in Switzerland and Qatar.

 
AUGUST

While the inexorable march towards the Rugby World Cup had international teams ramping up their preparations, August also saw domestic sides compete in an enthralling Singha Premiership Rugby 7s series.

All 12 Aviva Premiership Rugby sides, in addition to the four Welsh regions, contested four pools around the country with eight teams – Sale Sharks, Gloucester Rugby, Harlequins, Wasps, Exeter Chiefs, Newcastle Falcons, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons – ultimately making it to finals day at the Twickenham Stoop on August 28.

With quarter-finals and semi-finals whittling the teams down from eight to two, it was Wasps and Newport Gwent Dragons who would ultimately square off in the showpiece.

A back-and-forth encounter had the almost 6,500-strong crowd on their feet but Harry Keddie’s try with the final play of the game saw the Dragons triumph 17-14 with Elliot Frewen given the Man of the Night award.

It was the first time a Welsh side had won the Premiership Rugby 7s and Wasps speedster Elliot Daly admits he and his star-studded team – which also included the likes of Christian Wade, Joe Simpson and Dan Robson – were gutted not to walk away triumphant.

“We really wanted to win this competition,” said Daly. “Obviously we are all really disappointed but credit where it's due to Dragons as they came out and played really good rugby and were a good outfit.

“The 7s is always a different kind of thing to the 15s; it gives you a whole different focus and improves your fitness too so it's been a good experience. This kind of rugby gives you the core skills that you need to excel.”

Back in the XVs game, England handed a number of debuts to players that Aviva Premiership Rugby fans were intimately aware of as Stuart Lancaster looked to perfect his squad ahead of the impending home World Cup.

Calum Clark, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and rugby league convert Sam Burgess all made their international bows in the encouraging 19-14 win over France at Twickenham on August 15 before Saracens hooker Jamie George was blooded in the 25-20 reverse in Paris a week later.

Meanwhile, Newcastle Falcons were helping Georgia in their World Cup preparations by playing a friendly against the Eastern European side underneath the Friday night lights at Kingston Park on August 28.

With Ruki Tipuna steering a robust Falcons pack around the field, Scott Lawson, Tom Catterick, Alex Tait, George McGuigan and Chris Harris all dotted down in a 27-7 triumph over the side ranked 13th in the world.
 

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