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Fallen Giants: The Decline Of Three Former Kings Of English Rugby

Between 2012 and 2014, few things were certain for English rugby. A frustratingly inconsistent national team, disappointing European club form and salary cap rises were the big talking points of the period, but one thing didn’t change.

Saracens, Northampton Saints, Leicester and Harlequins would always feature in the top four of the Aviva Premiership.

The order changed, the eventual winner changed, but there was never an indication these three teams seemed to be on the way to the decline they were about to suffer.

But one by one, the horses fell. First, were Quins.

Harlequins

This club’s time at the top table was shorter than the other two teams, but in their period of success, they added a European Challenge Cup, Premiership title (after finishing first in the regular season) and Anglo-Welsh Cup to their trophy cabinet.

But since Saracens fought back to end their Premiership hopes in the 2014 semi-final, Quins have endured a tricky period. It all began when they lost 39-0 to Saracens at the start of that very next season.

Their previously successful offloading game was being nullified by defences tackling higher and they struggled to adapt their game.

This transition was also hurt by the fact that their recruitment was poor, failing to replace key positions of some ageing players.

With as many as seven key players regularly going away for international duty, they simply had to get recruitment right.

They have not been in the top four since 2014, and while they made a return to the European Champions Cup this season, they were out after the first three rounds and shipped 52 points away at Ulster in their last match in the competition.

Their away form, in general, has been what has really suffered. They’ve only managed to win four of their last 25 away games in the Premiership and have not managed a positive winning record for four seasons.

Sitting in seventh, they are still in with a great chance of returning to the Champions Cup next year, but they can no longer be considered title challengers and their form of 2012-2014 seems a distant memory.

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Northampton Saints

Without a doubt, the steepest of the three declines. Saints finished the 2014/15 season at the top of the Premiership, having lifted the title the season before in an incredible rise under Jim Mallinder.

After being promoted with the former Sale coach in 2008 they reached six consecutive Premiership semi-finals between 2010 and 2015, won the European Challenge Cup in 2009, reached the Anglo-Welsh Cup final on three occasions (winning in 2010) and reaching the Heineken Cup final in 2011.

They led that match 22-6 at half-time and while they lost, it didn’t stop their momentum.

They had many players of international quality, they still had an abundance of players that weren’t quite up to that standard, but still quality players, including the likes of Sam Dickinson, Christian Day and Stephen Myler.

But failure to recruit new players and allowing these existing ones to become deadwood, serious defensive issues (which Harlequins and Leicester also share on occasions), and a coaching team that seems to have run out of ideas have seen them fall away.

This season, it has been rapid. A series of inconsistent displays sandwiched between two shocking performances at Twickenham in defeats against Saracens and Harlequins.

A reliance on players who are past their best and others who aren’t yet experienced enough at this level has left their squad lacking in the work-rate and attacking quality that allowed them to sit at the Premiership’s top table.

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Leicester Tigers

The side that has declined the most slowly, and the least of these three clubs, but nevertheless is miles away from the team that used to win the Premiership title season in, season out.

After Wasps stopped being Leicester’s leading contenders, the old order was finally challenged by Saracens in 2011 and then Harlequins in 2012, as Leicester’s annual grip on the Premiership trophy was fading.

But they still managed to win the title the following year. It was 2014 when the biggest shock occurred. After nine finals in a row, the ten-time champions didn’t make it and haven’t returned since.

This relative dip led to the sacking of long-term coach Richard Cockerill. The fans were divided over that dismissal, but probably all surprised when his successor, Aaron Mauger, was given the boot after two months, having won the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

Life under Matt O’Connor has been far from plain sailing. They made a difficult start to the season and now sit in ninth, the lowest they have been since their squad was decimated by the World Cup in 2011.

Coaching divisions that blighted them last season, the drying up of players coming through their academy and recruitment troubles along with injury crises have seen this once dominant club fall away from the top.

Of course, Leicester are still always in the title race and shouldn’t be written off, but this might just be the season they finally slip out of the play-offs after 13 appearances in a row.

Nick Powell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.