After 21 gruelling rounds of Gallagher Premiership rugby the runners and riders are still not quite settled. Five teams are still jostling for Champions Cup rugby places whilst Saints and Quins are still gunning for fourth place to secure a semi final berth.
It has been quite a season on so many levels and when you think that Harlequins could make that play off spot in 4th when they have only won about half their games it looks slightly bonkers.
Even the Top 2 Exeter and Saracens which were comfortably ensconced in positions 1 and 2 respectively may well end up changing spots. The big showdown between Exeter and Saracens which would have been eagerly anticipated by fans and BT Sport as a big highlight of the season became something quite different when a Sarries B team ran riot against an Exeter B team. You can’t blame the coaches for fielding the sides they did and both have earnt the right to rest up their big guns. Exeter perhaps had slightly more to lose as they now have to win their final game to ensure they retain top seed status and a slightly easier home semi final.
The game itself allowed the rule to be run over a group of very promising Academy lads. Where Saracens had the edge in this game was in the forwards who included not so young Schalk Burger, Nick Isiekwe and man mountain Will Skelton. This allowed their youngsters in the back line to shine and fly half Max Malins and centre Dom Morris caught the eye.
Exeter’s coach Rob Baxter now has to earn his corn in deciding what team to put out at Sandy Park against Saints for the final game. I suspect he will go for a virtually full strength side to gain meomentum following what has been for them a strange hiatus which has led to some under par performances. Exeter I think have been biding their time and will be fully focussed and back to their best when it comes to the play offs. We all know how good they can be and with rested players chomping at the bit I feel Saints may have a battle to nail the 4th place.
As for the Cherry & Whites they managed to get back on track with a win against Newcastle. A win that finally condemned the Falcons to relegation. As I have said before as much as relegation adds excitement our league is still not rich enough or big enough to allow one club each season to fall into the Championship. It takes time to build a club, a culture and a fan base and it also takes money. Lots of money. We do not have sufficient money sloshing around our sport and owners do not have endless access to cash. Giving it some thought I think possibly a home and away play off to decide if someone comes up. If a team in the Championship has the quality to beat a Premiership team then maybe they are good enough to earn their place.
As for Glos they just have a tricky away fixture up at Sale to negotiate before probably heading over to North London to face Saracens in the semi final. I am really excited to see what Gloucester can do in this semi final and with most of the injured players fit and firing the teams look well matched. Saracens have never found Gloucester easy to play and this could be a humdinger that Gloucester have every chance of winning.
Harlequins have slipped up in their chase for the top 4 and now need a big win up at Wasps and hope Saints get nothing out of Exeter. They also have Sale and Bath breathing down their neck and could slip to 7th if results go against them. On the whole though I think the report card for Paul Gustard’s first season at the helm is a positive one. Quins have sharpened up and added some physicality and defensive structure to their game which is how they find themselves in the position they are in. it is also worth pointing out they have the highest amount of losing bonus points which demonstrates they have become much more competitive as a side.
Saints are another team who have like Quins under a new coach cleaned up their act and Chris Boyd has them playing a wonderful attacking style of rugby that is delivering results. They won’t fear going down to Sandy Park and with lashings of youthful exuberance will definitely take the game to the Chiefs.
Leicester Tigers have stumbled home this season sitting currently in an unlikely and for them shocking 11th place. They have a final home game which is against traditional rivals Bath to put on a big display for the loyal fans and make sure their season does not peter out with yet another loss.
Bath though still have things to play for so will go full bore and this game could go anyway. Welford Road sadly is no longer a fortress so I am not sure the home advantage will count for much. Bath however have been horribly inconsistent and with the quality of player they have are probably not quite where they should be. I thought they played brilliantly last week to get the victory against Wasps. If they can take that form into the Tigers game and other results go their way then the Bath boys may need to put holiday plans on hold as they could be in the play offs.
All eyes turn northwards on Saturday to St James’ Park on Saturday for the Heineken Champions Cup Final. Both Leinster and Saracens are already clutching fistfuls of winners medals and with the Irish side looking for an astounding 5th title this is a meeting of two rugby dynasties.
Both teams look likely to be nearly full strength. Mako Vunipola is supposedly out of his protective boot and Brad Barritt is hopeful for Saracens and Leinster relieved that Sean Cronin looks good to start alongside Rhys Ruddock. The match ups are titanic with Irish and English internationals and British & Irish Lions going up against each other.
The bookmakers cannot separate the two teams which tells you everything and means neither side can claim the underdog status. Looking at likely line ups I feel Leinster have the edge in the front row, centres and back row. Their all action starting front row with tighthead Tadgh Furlong and partner Cian Healey combines raw power with technical skills and the back row with Aussie Scott Fardy tearing it up alongside a revitalised Sean O’Brien and coming man Jack Conan overall looks stronger than Sarries.
If Brad Barritt does not recover then Leinster hands down win the centre battle. Henshaw and Ringrose are a class pairing who both looked immense in the semi final against Toulouse. For Saracens the back three, locks and half backs edge their opponents but we all know teams are more than the sum of their parts and tactics, physicality, desire and decision making will play a massive role. It is going to come down to small margins, one missed tackle, a soft penalty, a bounce of the ball, a high tackle. In these big games nerves can play a part albeit these two sides have mostly been there seen it and done it. However in a very tight game the wobblies can creep in and seeing England implode on a few occasions with many of the Sarries lads involved it may give Leinster hope. Saracens on the other hand will have plenty of players remembering a certain day in Dublin during the Six Nations when Ireland were taken apart. So whoever you are supporting or if you are a neutral this is a game to relish. Let’s hope these two do not cancel each other out with their defences and we get to see one of the great European finals.