Warmer air, drier grass and less cleaning work for the kit-men can only mean one thing- the approach of the end of another unpredictable and tumultuous season of domestic rugby. Saracens were the form team of the first half of the season, not losing until January, whilst their opposition in last year’s final, Bath, have been surprisingly underwhelming. Exeter Chiefs have once more shown up the larger budgets of some of their rivals as they continue to drive from strength to strength since their promotion seven years ago, and Worcester, Newcastle and London Irish have, somewhat predictably, provided the relegation dogfight for this year. Four games remain of the regular season, offering up some seismic clashes between the heavyweights of the table, but who will be crowned champions come the end of May.
Currently top of the table, and not looking like moving anytime soon, the early season front-runners have suffered during the Six Nations. The loss of star names such as Owen Farrell, George Kruis, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers have proved tough for the Londoners to take, but last week’s demolition of Exeter, which in truth flattered the Chiefs, provides the basis for why they are my pick to both finish top, and do the job come May. Their pack rarely goes backwards, and the power and talent at their disposal is crazy. Along with the fore-mentioned players, South-African livewire Schalk Brits will be key, together with England hopeful Will Fraser. Farrell has shown an added attacking verve all season and this combined with the talents of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton
and Duncan Taylor (who has come off a superb championship with Scotland) should make tough opposition for anyone. The only doubt lies in their ability to compete in both Europe and domestically right to the end, as proved their undoing in 2013. However, if they can keep their key players fit I can’t see anyone beating Saracens this year.
Local boys Exeter Chiefs have had a fantastic season and briefly occupied top spot last week. Although they were well beaten, they should have more than enough in the tank to finish well inside the top four. A squad that has steadily been strengthening year by year since their promotion now boasts a few star names such as Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, league top scorer Gareth Steenson and try scoring machine Tom Waldrom. The Devon based side have the joint most bonus points in the league and have one of the best home records in the table, only losing once to top placed Saracens. The penultimate round sees the visit of London Wasps- a massive game. Win, and Exeter should be assured of a home semi-final. Lose, and they will probably end up playing Wasps away. On form one has to go with a Wasps win, but on their day the Chief’s combination of forward grunt and the guile and creativity in the backs could see them through.
Chiefs should have more than enough in the tank to finish well inside the top four.
Moving stadium seems to work for Wasps. The Hornets moved to Coventry at the back-end of December and ever since have sparked the league alight with their attacking prowess. A back-line containing the likes of Eliot Daly, Christian Wade and the Piutau brothers has seen some huge totals being amassed, most notably their 64-23 demolition of Saracens at Allianz Park, whilst upfront man-mountain Nathan Hughes continues to single-handedly destroy opponents. If the league high scorers can overcome the two hurdles of Northampton Saints at home and Exeter away then they will earn a home semi-final, and would surely be expected to reach Twickenham. How long they can keep up this red-hot form only time will tell, but it seems Wasps could well be seeing a return to the glory days of the mid-2000s before long.
Saints are another team that fall into the category of underperforming this season. After finishing top of the table last term for the first time in their history one would have expected them to kick on, however an opening day loss to Worcester set the tone to a season which sees them now seven points behind third placed Wasps. The return of Dylan Hartley and George North will only improve the Saints, and if they can kick on from last week’s victory over Quins then they should be able to hold off the challenge of Leicester. The East-Midlands derby at Franklin’s Gardens in Round 20 should prove to be an absolute humdinger. The winner of this could well go on to claim the fourth playoff place although Leicester do enjoy an easier run in. This could go to the wire.
After finishing top of the table last term for the first time in their history one would have expected Saints to kick on
Leicester are a team you can always count on to be up there towards the end of the season, and although also not having the best year, have recently strung together a few results which have helped push them to fifth, one point behind Saints. The return of the powerful Manu Tuilagi will boost the midfield, whilst the backs are littered with quality and pace. Upfront Leicester are not as all-conquering as they used to be, but have some decent picks in Harry Thacker, Logoviki Mulipola and Brendan O’Conner. If they can win their matches against Gloucester, Worcester and Bath then their hopes may well rely on any bonus points they can pick up, as well as how they do against Northampton.
Not really in the running anymore after last week’s result against Northampton, if Quins can pick up maximum points from their last four games then there’s an outside chance they could sneak a playoff place. However, with fixtures against Exeter and Saracens to come that could prove too much to ask. Another team that hasn’t hit the heights expected of them, their exciting high tempo offloading game hasn’t featured as much this season, which combined with injuries to key players has left them mid-table. A couple wins in their last run of games should see them safely into the Champions Cup for Europe next season.
Playoff Winners: Saracens
Playoff Runners-up: London Wasps