Best player? Best game? Tom Vickers' review of Saints' 2020/21 season
In the end it was to be a comfortable fifth-placed finish for Saints in the Gallagher Premiership.
It was far better than many expected when they endured a horrible losing run in 2020, but worse than what was hoped for when they propelled themselves into the play-off picture by the start of May.
There were many highs and many lows in a strange campaign that was largely played behind closed doors.
Here, we take a look back at it and hand out our accolades for a roller coaster 2020/21 campaign.
Player of the season
There's a reason why David Ribbans won both the players' and supporters' player of the season prizes: because he was simply superb. It's not often a lock, someone who works tirelessly in the team's engine room, gets the plaudits, but Ribbans' form was too good to ignore. Game after game he caught the eye with his relentless work rate and ferocious carrying ability. And it's just a shame for him that England haven't capped him as yet. However, if Ribbans carries on like this, he can be a key figure for country and not just club in the years to come.
Young player of the season
This is such a tough one, with two stand-out contenders. Ollie Sleightholme has been nothing short of electric, scoring tries for fun, but the accolade has to go to Tommy Freeman. Chris Boyd recently said that Freeman was a 'rank outsider' for a first-team starting spot at the beginning of the season, but he has gone on to become one of the first names on the teamsheet in recent times. Freeman seems to have it all, allying an elusive running game with great awareness, great handling and plenty of pace. If he continues on this upward trajectory, who knows how good he can be?
Game of the season
If you'd said a Challenge Cup game at the Dragons would be the most enjoyable of the campaign, many would have probably laughed at you, but here we are. Saints went to Rodney Parade on April 3 eager to take the next step on their European journey, but it looked for all the world like they would bow out with a disappointing last-16 defeat. However, they produced one of the best comebacks in their storied history, recovering from being 22-3, 32-17 and 39-24 down along the way to defeat the Dragons 43-39 thanks to a thrilling late try from Tom Collins.
Best win of the season
Winning at Welford Road is always right up there for Saints - and they actually do that quite a lot these days. So while it would be easy to give this accolade to the 23-18 success against Tigers back in April, it has to go elsewhere. While Saints have made something of a habit of winning at Leicester in recent years, that has definitely not been the case when it comes to games at Exeter. But, finally, the black, green and gold ended their lengthy Sandy Park losing streak with a display of incredible character a resilience in February. Saints were huge underdogs on a dreadful playing surface, but they gritted their teeth and got the job done, sealing a sensational 13-12 success as Ollie Sleightholme charged down a late Joe Simmonds conversion and booted the ball out of play to ensure Saints would win at Exeter for the first time since February 2014.
Best individual display of the season
Ollie Sleightholme could easily claim this for his four-try showing at Worcester in March, but it actually goes to a man who resembled Lazarus against Leicester at Welford Road in April. Dan Biggar looked like he would be forced off late on after colliding with gigantic wing Nemani Nadolo. Saints were under all sorts of pressure and it looked like they would have to play the final five minutes with 13 men as JJ Tonks was sin-binned and Biggar was being helped from the field. But, such is the character of the Wales fly-half, he somehow managed to return to the field, and not only that, he made a crucial tap tackle that helped to win the game for Saints. He was more than man of the match that day, he was a mammoth.
Low point of the season
Saints' home defeat to Harlequins near the start of the campaign wasn't much fun to witness at all, but it was perhaps nothing compared to what happened against Gloucester at Franklin's Gardens at the start of May. Saints went into the game with hopes of a top-four finish high, but they fell completely flat as they endured a 31-7 defeat on home soil. Saints simply never got anything going in what was comfortably their worst performance of the campaign.
One to watch for next season
Tommy Freeman again falls into this category, but let's go for Ollie Sleightholme here. If he can stay largely injury free, the lightning-quick wing could break all sorts of try-scoring records. At one point in the season just gone, Sleightholme had scored EIGHT tries in just FOUR games, including four in one game at Worcester. The 21-year-old has it all: pace, physicality, a ruthless streak and even an ability to win breakdown penalties. And his partnership with Freeman has early echoes of the one Chris Ashton and Ben Foden struck up so successfully for Saints.
Hopes for the future
Firstly, we all hope that Covid-19 leaves us alone so that we can try to get back to some sort of normality with more and more rugby fans allowed to attend matches at the months go on. On the field, the hope is that Saints can finally find some sort of consistency as the lack of it has blighted them throughout the 2020/21 season. They have followed up impressive wins with disappointing defeats on a far too regular basis, and that has to stop. If they are to compete with the best, they will have to beat them, time and time again, just as they did during the double-winning season of 2013/14. The hope is that some of the hugely talented Academy graduates like Tommy Freeman and Ollie Sleightholme can help them do just that in the months and years ahead.