Proud of improvement despite defeat in semi
THERE were remarkable similarities in the two Premiership playoff matches last weekend. The two top dogs swatted aside third and fourth with big scores and showed just how far ahead they both are in winning big games.
Gloucester got off to a cracker with a try that would grace any team anywhere in the world.
It could easily have opened up the floodgates against lesser teams, but Saracens are made of sterner stuff.
What happened next, almost immediately in fact, was probably the key to the ultimate result. Instead of sitting back and sulking, Saracens exploded into their own scoring routine – and that, as they say, was that.
Gloucester must have been well pleased with the opening salvo, but when your best punch does not put the opponent down you subconsciously suspect that they are half tasty. And so it proved.
Gloucester showed signs of trying too hard at times and went chasing the game.
Against a well-structured team like Saracens the end result is almost inevitable and you run up drainpipes that had never existed before and the structure, previously strong, crumbles.
There are those who strongly believe that rugby is a running and handling game. Up to a point this is an accurate assessment, but it forgets the importance of kicking (and, by definition, catching).
The best teams tend to have the best kickers and this has been a truism for as long as the game has been played. Saracens have developed a set of strategies that suffocate and strangle opponents and they have been working at the system for many years.
But strategic kicking on its own is of little use unless the whole team knows where the ball is going – and there is a high percentage chance of the ball being collected.
This is where Gloucester fell short as Saracens seemed to have a
sixth sense and a very high skill level in retrieving the high ball.
Some of the bounces seemed to favour them, but they were on a different level when the ball went to the heavens.
But all is not lost. The score was high, as it was against Northampton, but both Exeter Chiefs and Saracens have been developing their basic game plan for some time.
Both Northampton and Gloucester are really just starting out on their journey back to the top of the game.
Gloucester did lose heavily, but we have to be realistic and see the wider picture of vast improvement since Johan Ackermann took over.
It is a tough league but the Cherry and Whites are getting there. We all wanted the team to do well in the semis but perhaps a victory at Saracens was only a pipe dream.
Rugby is a harsh environment when a team is trying too hard. At times Gloucester seemed to be trying to force the tempo when all signs suggested that it was a hopeless task – and the home side was always ready to pounce on any errors.
Just getting to this stage of the Premiership is a massive plus.
Hopefully the squad will not see things that way and they will set targets for next season that enables a better finish with a place in the final.
However, the competitive standards keep on rising and the bar is constantly going up.
Who would have thought that Newcastle Falcons would be relegated? They always looked too strong and they played an exciting game – but still they took the dreaded fall.
Others who seemed more likely to drop emerged as big improvers and Worcester can take great credit for what they achieved.
At the beginning of the season they had to be most people’s best bet for the dreaded drop.
Gloucester ended up third in the Gallagher Premiership and we will see the best of Europe next season.
The final result was, of course, disappointing – but we can all be proud of the team’s performances and improvement.
Franco Mostert is held by George Kruis and Owen Farrell
»Former Gloucester and England A coach Keith Richardson