The Scramble for Top Six
Calculators at the ready for the final three rounds of what has been a hugely competitive season of Premiership rugby. Rugby Directors will feel they are now planning for quarter finals and knock out rugby as the implications of winning and losing these last few games are huge.
On Friday night up in Salford Sale Sharks dented Wasps hopes of a home semi final in a thriller of a game. You could tell by Wasps’ DOR Dai Youngs reaction at the end of the match that he was both frustrated and gutted to lose that match. Normally the most diplomatic of men he fired off a few shots. Wasps had a very healthy lead of 17 points in the first quarter and seemed to be carving through Sale cruising nicely to 5 points but errors let Sale back in with a string of penalties and a charge down which led to a try. The ending of the game featured enough drama to be worthy of its own Netflix series. Wasps holding a 6 point lead with minutes to go, a titanic clash of heads between three players with Danny Cipriani knocked out cold and a yellow card for James Haskell followed by an incredible defensive set from Wasps that was ended in agonising fashion by a Marland Yarde try to give Sale the sweetest of victories.
Sale have two away games left including Newcastle and Exeter Chiefs. Win one of these as well as their final home game against Leicester and, my goodness, we could well see the Northerners in their first semi final since 2006.
For Wasps it looks a slightly more forgiving run in with two home games against lower ranked teams Worcester and Northampton. However on the final week they have a long haul up to the North East to face Newcastle in a match that could have plenty riding on it for both sides. Mouth watering indeed.
Other scores that caught the eye were the complete demolishing of Northampton Saints by their nemesis Saracens. How the London boys must love playing Saints and just how sick are Northampton of facing this club. The stats for these two teams, who have played each other four times this season, are almost incomprehesible with Saracens scoring over 50 points every time with this weekend the highest margin of all with a 13-63 final scoreline. It actually started well for Saints who had a decent first half and were for the first time this season giving Saracens a game. But the half time team talk obviously did not work as they went on to concede 48 unanswered points in the second half with Saracens seemingly scoring tries at will. Hard to put a finger on the collapse – lack of self belief or tiredness from a tough and physical first half? The end of the season cannot come quick enough I am sure for the Franklins Gardens faithful who have seen some woeful performances from their team. The last few games have nothing riding on them except pride but it would be a real shame if Northampton roll over as they can still influence the outcome of the league placings with games against Leicester and Wasps. Looking ahead there is hope for the Saints with the arrival next season of top class Kiwi coach Chris Boyd from the Hurricaines and stellar Wales fly half Dan Biggar who should both add plenty of stardust to the side which still contains some mighty fine players.
London Irish do not seem to be getting too much of that famous ‘luck of the Irish’ this season with so many close games not going their way - so instead they carved out their own luck with a tremendous win away to Harlequins. The almost relegated side showed up a lacklustre Quins who to me look as if they have off-field problems and will be hunting a new DOR for next season. That is not to take away from Irish who played with vim and scored some lovely tries. Irish joy was crushed slightly at the end of the game with the news Worcester had fought back against Newcastle and secured themselves a comfortable victory thus still keeping Irish at arms length. The margin is now 9 points between Irish and the Warriors which means mathematically Worcester could still be caught. A quick peek at London Irish’s last three games however and it looks like Mission Impossible. The boys in green have to face Exeter, Saracens and Bath so will need quite a few stars to align to save themselves from the drop. Worcester seem to have shaken off the complacency that infected them in their previous few games and showed some real grit and some lovely skills to rack up three tries in the second half in just 13 minutes to put themselves in charge.
Do you remember the days when Bath v Leicester was the biggest fixture of the season? It has not been this way for quite a number of years now and Saturday’s game moved from Bath to Twickenham sadly ended in defeat for the hosts. It still seems odd to see Bath as one of the also runs and with a coach like Todd Blackadder in charge I expected a bit more from them this season. It was the good old Tigers scrum that set the platform with the tyro Ellis Genge again dominant and crushing his opposite number. To be fair to Bath they have been plagued with injuries this season and have some world class front rowers missing. I also felt they didn’t give up and their defence was at times heroic. Another England prop on the radar also stood out with Beno Obano having a stonking game in the loose. He seemed to be everywhere carrying hard and smashing green shirts in the tackle. Delicious choices for Eddie Jones for the South Africa tour with the loosehead position looking well stocked. This loss by Bath means they are now in a battle for Champions Cup rugby and will need an away victory against Saracens next week to keep that hope alive.
For Leicester Tigers what can you say that has not already been said. In the play off places yet again something the midlands outfit have never failed to achieve. Quite remarkable consistency and for them there is now a real chance of staying in third above Wasps which would mean avoiding facing the Champions at Sandy Park in the semi final.
Talking of Sandy Park the champions put in another storming performance to crunch Gloucester in a six try victory. Gloucester had endeavour and effort but the Chiefs were simply that much better. For all the talk of them being a team rather than a collection of superstar individuals they have developed some genuine England contenders. Luke Cowan Dickie, Alec Hepburn, Don Armand and Sam Simmonds plus Henry Slade need to be given more oportunities with the national side. These are seriously good players.
The Chiefs are such a cohesive team with all the working parts so smooth and as we all know if you give them back the ball they thank you and then refuse to hand it back until they score. Exeter are sitting comfortably at the top of the table with a home semi final to look forward to against no-one they will fear. Any bets for another Exeter title?
As for Gloucester it was a deep breath and go again with two games at Kingsholm over the next couple of weekends. It would be heart breaking for a season that at one stage promosed so much to end it below the top 6 and out of Europe. Still a chance of course with the Challenge Cup as an entry route but I am sure Gloucester would like to not have to rely on that.
Another colossal set of clashes awaits next weekend which should start to see the shake down on both top 4 and top 6 but knowing the Aviva Premiership there could well be further twists to come as teams throw everything they have at round 20.