2018 In Review: October to December
After a fast and furious start to the new Gallagher Premiership Rugby season, the final months of the 2018 saw the league picture begin to take shape as Saracens and Exeter Chiefs reigned supreme.
There were plenty of thrills and spills as another six rounds of action were done and dusted, while the 12 top flight teams also began their Premiership Rugby Cup and European campaigns.
In the final part of our month-by-month review of the year, we reflect on all the drama from the Gallagher Premiership in October, November and December.
Exeter started the month by making it six wins from their opening six Premiership games with five tries against West Country rivals Bath Rugby in a 39-24 triumph at the Rec.
The Blue, Black and Whites had taken the lead three times up to the hour mark but tries from Stuart Townsend, Don Armand, Dave Ewers, Ian Whitten and Jack Nowell sealed victory for the visitors.
Reigning champions Saracens were also given a stern examination by Harlequins before coming from behind to maintain their unbeaten start to the season with a 25-20 win at The Stoop.
Owen Farrell’s 20 points from the tee guided the men in black to victory, but their London rivals pushed them all the way thanks to tries from Danny Care and Joe Marchant.
Marchant’s try was particularly memorable, capitalising on a wayward Marcus Smith penalty by jumping highest to claim the ball in the air after it had been caught up in the wind.
Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints also brought the East Midlands derby to Twickenham in Round Six as they battled it out at the Home of England Rugby in aid of Rob Horne.
The Australian international centre was forced to retire from the game at the end of last season after sustaining a career-ending injury while playing in Saints’ win over Tigers at Welford Road.
More than 40,000 fans turned out to support the cause as first-half tries frim Ben Youngs and Jordan Olowofela ensured Tigers claimed bragging rights with a 23-15 triumph.
Elsewhere, Newcastle Falcons’ difficult start to the 2018-19 campaign continued as they suffered a 20-7 defeat to Sale Sharks, who leapfrogged their opponents at the bottom of the table.
Gallagher Premiership Rugby Player of the Month for September Danny Cipriani also made a winning return to the Ricoh Arena as the fly-half inspired Gloucester Rugby to a 35-21 victory over Wasps.
Worcester Warriors concluded the round with a dominant performance against newly-promoted Bristol Bears, recording an emphatic seven-try victory at Sixways.
The rest of the month was consumed by European and Premiership Rugby Cup action, with Newcastle creating history by beating Toulon and Montpellier in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Meanwhile, there were wins for Worcester Warriors, Northampton Saints, Harlequins, Gloucester and Saracens in the opening round of the Premiership Rugby Cup.
The second and third rounds of the Premiership Rugby Cup kicked off November as the 12 English top-flight teams looked to forge a path through to the knockout stages.
Bristol bounced back from their opening round defeat to see off West Country rivals Gloucester 21-13 at Ashton Gate, while Sale Sharks and Saracens played out a 15-15 draw at the AJ Bell.
The other West Country derby saw Exeter Chiefs get the better of Bath again, with Worcester Warriors and Newcastle Falcons also picking up wins over Leicester and Harlequins respectively.
Northampton Saints finished off Round Two by making it two wins from two against Wasps, snatching a dramatic 15-14 triumph with the last play of the game from Mitch Eadie.
But Chris Boyd’s men were unable to keep their run going in Round Three, coming unstuck against Gloucester Rugby as the cherry & whites closed the gap at the top of Pool Three to one point.
There were also wins for Sale Sharks, Newcastle Falcons, Exeter Chiefs, Saracens and Bristol Bears in the final Premiership Rugby Cup games until the new year.
And after the European and Premiership Rugby Cup hiatus, Gallagher Premiership Rugby returned with a bang later in the month as Ollie Thorley’s stunning try helped Gloucester beat Leicester.
Newcastle’s struggles in the league continued, though, as they went down 20-7 to Harlequins, while Bath Rugby got back to winning ways with a 28-13 triumph over Worcester at the Rec.
Elsewhere, an inspired display from Taqele Naiyaravoro helped Saints claim a bonus-point win over Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens and Saracens defeated Sale Sharks 31-25 at Allianz Park.
Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs saved the best until last, however, with the West Country rivals playing out a classic at Ashton Gate as the visitors came from behind to win 31-29.
Round Eight was not short of entertainment either, with Newcastle Falcons claiming a vital victory against Bath Rugby at Kingston Park on Toby Flood’s 100th appearance for the hosts.
Worcester made it four wins in a row at Sixways after beating Harlequins 20-13, while Exeter Chiefs maintained their perfect start to the season with a 23-6 victory over Gloucester at Sandy Park.
There were also wins for Sale Sharks and Wasps, with the latter overcoming a dogged Bristol 32-28 at the Ricoh, before Saracens made it eight wins from eight by defeating Leicester Tigers.
But November threw up one last surprise as Exeter slipped up against Harlequins at the Stoop in the first match of Round Nine as the Devon side lost their unbeaten start to the season.
Following the dramatic conclusion to November, all eyes were on Saracens as they looked to capitalise on Exeter’s defeat – which they duly did with a 29-6 win against Wasps.
The victory for Mark McCall’s troops ensured they took a two-point lead going into the European break, while Bristol also landed a huge blow in their battle for survival.
A Harry Thacker braced guided the Bears to a handsome 41-10 win against Leicester Tigers, with Luke Morahan and Harry Randall also getting on the scoresheet for the hosts.
What a day! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Zd3u5G8TTF
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) December 1, 2018
Tries were also coming thick and fast in Gloucester’s comfortable 36-16 win over Worcester at Kingsholm, with the cherry & whites scoring six to move up to third in the table.
Newcastle managed only their third win of the season against Northampton to briefly lift themselves off the bottom off the table, with Mark Wilson crossing with the final play of the game.
But Sale soon went back ahead of Falcons with a hard-fought 7-7 draw against Bath at The Rec – Joe Cokanasiga’s late try rescuing a share of the spoils for the hosts.
After three frantic rounds of Gallagher Premiership action, the clubs had to turn their focus back to Europe where Exeter and Gloucester faced each other back-to-back in the Champions Cup.
The Chiefs’ hopes of reaching the knockout stages appeared to be in danger after losing to their Premiership rivals at Sandy Park, but they responded with a 29-17 win at Kingsholm.
It was bad news for Bath Rugby and Wasps, though, as both suffered defeats in their double-headers against Leinster and Toulouse, respectively, ending their chances of progressing any further.
Elsewhere, Saracens made it 22 games unbeaten in all competitions with home and away wins against Cardiff Blues, while Leicester Tigers were beaten twice by Racing 92.
Newcastle Falcons also suffered consecutive defeats to Edinburgh, but they could still potentially qualify for the knockout stages with wins in their final pool games in the new year.
A return to Gallagher Premiership action capped off the year in style, with Exeter Chiefs ended Saracens’ unbeaten run with a 31-13 triumph at Sandy Park in Round 10.
There were also important wins for Northampton, Leicester Tigers, Sale Sharks and Bath Rugby in the penultimate round of the year, meaning only ten points separated fourth from 12th in the table.
A shock defeat for Exeter against Saints in Round 11 then ensured a dramatic climax to 2018 as a Cobus Reinach intercept try downed the league leaders 31-28 at Franklin’s Gardens.