The drama of the Premiership eased slightly last weekend particularly on the relegation front. It looks like Newcastle Falcons are doomed and you just must feel for the club and fans. To go from 4th last year to relegation is a hard one to swallow. With in-form Gloucester lying in wait on Saturday it is hard to see the Falcons getting the points to stave off the final blow. Should they however somehow, someway find their form and put in a massive performance to overturn Gloucester and then Leicester lose away to Quins - put the kettle on and settle down for another dramatic weekend.
In truth this was overall genuinely one tough season with Falcons still not mathematically relegated and Leicester Tigers in an unbelievable 11th place. The tightness of the league was shown by the way teams who have won around half their games are still in with top four chances and European qualification. Exeter and Saracens have taken points off nearly everyone and all the other teams have taken points off each other.
Some might think it is a pointless scramble for top 4 when Exeter and Saracens look like they have it sewn up but dig a little deeper into results and you can see there were plenty of tight games only just won by the top 2 and they have both lost games they were expected to win. Now there are still about 4 teams who could grab that final playoff spot, so this is an intriguing set of fixtures coming up.
When it comes to the Twickenham final for me Gloucester look best placed for an assault on the established duo and their probable semi final against Saracens is going to be something special. It is lip smacking to see that Glos pack up against a nearly all England 8 and of course let us not forget the Cipriani v Farrell match up. On paper Sarries may have a slight edge but Gloucester need to believe and go there with heads switched on and prepared to be very physical. With the likes of Mostert, Marais, Ackerman, Slater and Ben Morgan at their best they have weapons a plenty in the pack and of course some classy and pacy backs. The away loss to Worcester would not have been in the plan for the Cherry & Whites and it was an uncharacteristic display. You have to credit Worcester however who still had survival to play for and put a massive amount into the game coming away deserved winners.
A lot will depend of course on the outcome of the European Champions Cup final as to what motivation Saracens will have for the semi-final playoff and also of course whether they are hit with any significant injuries. They play Exeter this Saturday in what should have been a massive show down but is now likely, at least from the Saracens side, to feature more of a second string.
Exeter by their own standards are wobbling but I think it is understandable. I often talk about the psychological side of rugby as being critical. Let’s be honest rugby hurts. A lot. To physically get yourself in the right state to go out and smash into other human beings with real intensity needs something at stake. Exeter has been comfortably into a home semi final for weeks now and that is tough for the players to find any motivation. For their game against Quins at Sandy Park they started like a train playing some sublime stuff but just could not keep up that intensity and fair play to Quins their scrum and set piece was awesome and they came right back in to nearly snatch an away win. I personally loved the reaction from Quins boss Paul Gustard when asked about an ‘unlikely’ away win. Guzzie snapped back at the reporter that he did not view Quins as the underdogs, and he believed they were just as good as Exeter. Good for him. The leader board says differently but what great motivation for his team when the boss tells the world you are as good as anyone in the league.
Come semi final time coach Rob Baxter will need to find a way to get his players back in warrior mode to make sure they are fired up for the two games that really, really matter at the end of a long season. Who will be their visitors remains to be seen with Northampton Saints looking like the likely candidates? What is notable however is that in this penultimate round of Premiership fixtures most of the games still have something riding on them. Even if this league did not have relegation with 12 competitive teams fighting for Home semis, Top 4 and Top 6 I think we can forget about too many dead rubbers.
Next season London Irish make their expected move back up to the Prem and congratulations to them. It is a very hard slog playing in the Championship with around 6 sides who will give you a hugely competitive game plus many who will just be big powerful units who will make you work for your points. Given the quality of the guys Irish are signing up the Premiership looks like it will continue to be one of the toughest rugby leagues in the world.
Final shout out to the women’s game with the Tyrells 15’s league really establishing itself as a top-quality product. The final was played out on Saturday up at Franklins Gardens with Saracens taking on Harlequins and the game was a brilliant advert for women’s rugby. Some absolute quality on show and a good size crowd there to watch. It is the fastest growing part of our game and if you have not caught much women’s rugby give it a try.