Brian Dick, Rugby Correspondent, reviews a remarkable season for Worcester.
Far be it for anyone, least of all me, to condense the content of an entire season into a series of moans about refereeing decisions.
After all, who can provide the statistical evidence to disprove the notion that such matters even out over a complete campaign.
But as ever with Worcester, another year has passed and left their supporters wondering what might have been.
There was the customary battle at the bottom of the table, the usual handful of disastrous performances and the annual springtime charge that lifts them clear of the drop but there ends the similarities with any of their previous three attempts at the English top flight.
This was a remarkable season even by Warriors’ standards. Usually they end their programme with a do-or-die-trying relegation showdown but this term they went out in the rarefied atmosphere of a European final, a fact that deserves praise in itself but one that also provides a source of frustration.
For the first half hour of their seismic Challenge Cup clash with Bath, Mike Ruddock’s men went toe-to-toe, chest-to-chest, head-to-head and off-load-to-off-load with the best attacking team in the country.
It was the completion of an incredible transition from tiresome plodders to ambitious and creative exponents of a beautiful game. Fixtures against Bath book-ended that transformation - desperate at The Rec on the first day, desperately unlucky at Kingsholm on the last.
Now comes the refereeing bit. Quite how none of the officials on duty that day saw that Lee Mears’ pass to Butch James was forward is incredible. Seconds later Jonny Faamatuainu broke open a tight game. The try that should not have been gave Bath a 10-3 lead they would never lose.
By that time Danny Grewcock had already been in pantomime villain mode by demonstrating utter disregard for the offside laws and soon after Mears escaped an even more blatant yellow card for pulling back Shane Drahm.
That Christophe Berdos did as much as Olly Barkley to deny Worcester a place in the Heineken Cup leaves the most bitter of tastes.
Throw into the mix the three tries they scored but were not awarded at Kingston Park and sundry other disallowed efforts and Ruddock and his troops have every reason to feel such issues have not balanced out.
Yet such concerns should not diminish pride at a job done relatively well. To anyone who has watched Worcester commendably bore their way to Premiership safety since September 2004, the sight of them slicing up Newcastle twice in a couple of weeks - and crossing the line 12 times in the process - was almost surreal.
That they are not in the Heineken Cup matters little, indeed in terms of Ruddock’s rebuilding process it might even be a positive. One only need look at how Bristol, Northampton and Harlequins have struggled in recent years to see how difficult it is to fight on two fronts.
Their new-found running game and confidence are not yet ready to withstand the harsh Russian winter that is a campaign in rugby’s most unforgiving club competition.
“Your six easiest games of the season become your six hardest,” is how Drahm describes the step up from the Challenge Cup.
The Australian has every right to comment. He’s had three cracks at the Heineken Cup in his six years in England and was the catalyst behind Worcester’s latest recovery. For the last three months the diminutive fly half has been one of the best in the country combining Danny Cipriani’s eye for a gap and Jonny Wilkinson’s ability to kick into space. He will be sorely missed, not least by me.
As an interviewee Drahm is interesting, friendly and not afraid of speaking his mind. As a player his break from under his posts at Sale provided the highlight of the season.
But as poor as he was at the start of the season, we have always known he is a top-class performer. With Marcel Garvey that fact had been all but obscured by many, many months of palsied, error-strewn performances that left this correspondent describing him as a ‘sprinter not a rugby player’.
There didn’t seem much prospect of Ruddock and his coaches turning him around either.
Clive Griffiths revealed later in the season that he had identified Garvey as his main project but when, on opening day, the winger fumbled Dale Rasmussen’s delightful popped pass under the sticks at The Rec few gave Griffiths much hope of succeeding.
Yet Garvey is now Worcester’s most improved and most potent attacker.
Former All Black Rico Gear warms a bench in admiration, as the Gloucester-born player strays from his sideline hungry for work.
He deserved an England Saxons call, especially ahead of the recently-added Tom Biggs. He is the personification of the side’s transformation.
However, the true legacy of the season will not be Garvey’s recuperation, nor the brief dalliance with the Heineken Cup but the way in which Ruddock has integrated youngsters from the club’s academy in a way his predecessor seemed so reluctant to do.
Chris Pennell and Tom Wood started the first match of the season at Bath and all the former needed to complete the image of a rabbit caught in headlights was a fluffy tail. By the time the end of the term came round his open-field tackle on Newcastle’s John Rudd was another eloquent symbol of the individual and collective development that drives Sixways forward.
Wood went on to enjoy a solid first year, Matt Mullan is a Saxon in the waiting, Jonny Arr and Matt Cox will play bigger parts next year and Joey Carlisle, a fly half blessed with the most gorgeous pair of hands, could start the first game next term.
But the real discovery has been Miles Benjamin, a winger who has everything required in attack. His two tries at home to Bath were quite splendid particularly the one that took him through a third of the Bath team.
There are obviously shortcomings in his game, he lacks an awareness of the positional subtleties required by world-class wingers, but in terms of raw potential he could have the same impact Ben Cohen had.
Another element of Worcester improvement has been the infusion of three New Zealand internationals. Gear will be better next season and could even claim some credit for the way Garvey and Benjamin have come through.
The mountainous Greg Rawlinson has provided the second row with an edge absent since Tim Collier slipped from his confrontational best but is a much more rounded - and less round - performer than Collier. His display at Kingsholm was simply awesome.
But Sam Tuitupou would be my player of the year. There are few sights better than an out-half or inside centre cutting through a defence and few do it better than the Pocket Rocket.
Add to that his bone-jarring tackling and superb support lines and it is clear it is Tuitupou who has been the best of the many All Black imports across the league.
For that Ruddock just might want to thank his predecessor because it was John Brain who agreed the deal to bring the 26-year-old to the West Midlands.