Over the next week we should have a clearer picture of who has the best Gallagher Premiership title credentials. League leaders Exeter Chiefs travel to both Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears in the space of five days; could they be knocked off the top of the table in this time?
Away wins at Sandy Park
If you can cast your mind all the way back to November 2019, you might recall Bristol overturned a 17-0 half time deficit to claim a victory in the last play of the game. This sent the Bears top and really signalled that they weren’t just a team of well-paid big names.
Then a couple of months later, Sale appeared at Sandy Park and blew the Chiefs away in the first half, scoring three tries and holding a 22-5 lead. The fact that they didn’t score a point in the second half yet still took the win was highly impressive.
This was another moment that demonstrated Sale’s Premiership title credentials, given their generally weak away record.
Chance for Psychological edge over Exeter Chiefs
Given these results, both Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears can now claim a league double over Exeter. Arguably they have done the hard bit, getting the away win. But without crowds and in this a very abnormal scenario, how much home advantage will they have? Equally, Exeter are strong on the road, with four away wins out of six this season.
But should the Sharks and the Bears take the wins in the next week, Exeter may not be so confident heading into the play-offs, which most assume they will qualify for. The current fourth placed team, Wasps, also won at Sandy Park in April 2019.
Therefore the Chiefs’ route to the title may not be as simple as some expect.
Bristol and Sale can prove Premiership title credentials
Of course, because of the condensed schedules, none of these three sides are going to be able to name their full-strength lineups in their next two matches. New directives prevent players from playing more than 180 minutes in a three game week, plus injuries will surely start to accumulate.
The Professional Game Board has confirmed a series of player welfare initiatives to cover the culmination of the 2019-20 season and the whole of the 2020-21 campaign.
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Therefore for Exeter, they will either go full strength against Sale then rotate against Bristol, or spread the squad across the two games. In theory Bristol should benefit more from the timing, but they have a trip to Gloucester to negotiate in the same timeframe.
Next Tuesday, when Bristol and Exeter face off, Sale will travel to Wasps which will be another vital top four clash. Come next Tuesday night, the table could look very different and several teams’ Premiership title credentials will become clearer.
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