Moving from the regular season to the knockout rounds, as 2020/21 Premiership playoffs places were secured, the reality of this prolonged and somewhat crazy Covid-affected calendar year is shifted into the background.
Four teams now ascend to the semi-finals. The penultimate weekend, before the two most accomplished sides will match each other in the Grand Final on June 26. Time to put it all on the line; no bonus points, no consideration of European play, or for anything more than just the next 160 minutes.
The two next matches are to prove you are a worthy champion….or not. To display your credentials this Friday and Saturday, to prove your rightful place in the Final.
𝕋𝕙𝕖 𝔽𝕚𝕟𝕒𝕝 𝔽𝕠𝕦𝕣
Are you ready? 🍿 pic.twitter.com/rcKUyMd1gj
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) June 12, 2021
So for the likes of Exeter, Bristol, Sale, and Harlequins, their final hurdle is only 180 ‘metres’ from this mark.
2020/21 Premiership Playoffs confirmed after Covid-affected calendar year
Figuratively, 160 minutes is a valid analogy as the sports world enters July, and the biggest showcase of all; the Olympics. Yet for Rugby fans in Britain, this is their zenith. The English Premiership, the traditional powerhouse of Northern Hemisphere rugby. Yes, even while the French Top14 is now critically acclaimed – and for all the right valid reasons – the 2020/21 Premiership playoffs is often judged as the standard-bearer.
Four leading clubs have performed admirably, and they all qualify for the challenge ahead. A Kingsize one too, but one that every year sees the finest players and groups meet their peak performance. Something that analysis like this can only determine by the actions over the course of this year. One hell of a year though, which can still assist with the preview of each of the semifinals.
That means taking a look at all the protagonists who meet. And to list their strengths and weaknesses, in aid of finding out which of these sides are best placed to become the next Gallagher Premiership champions.
Match 1: Bristol Bears v Harlequins
From their perch on top of the draw from virtually Round Six onwards, the Bears have come of age. Bristol has always been well admired, and after promotion in 2018/19, their ascension to the top flight is near astonishing. That is driven by the coaching staff, established players plus some intelligent signings. Balanced with an approximate 60/40 split of local and imported talent which gives the side the variety and initiative to complement some well-sequenced set play.
Harlequins have been the high-performing group under a new coaching guard. Some would class the squad as ‘boxing above their weight’ yet, across 22 rounds they only dropped as low as seventh all year, before stabilizing inside the top four. If that is not an example of consistency, then observers must respect ‘Quins placing.
A playoff place is reward for the club’s stalwarts, including Mike Brown. Whilst he is suspended, the likes of Joe Marler and Danny Care mean the opposition in the Bears 2020/21 Premiership playoffs fixture are seasoned professionals – capable of a solid showing at Ashton Gate on Friday.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) June 16, 2021
The above comparison is well earned. Two young men that are more comfortable in their roles. And around them, are qualified halves and back rows that enable them to operate most effectively. Outside each are backlines with differing powers; for Bristol that must include Semi Radradra. The most explosive player in the league, he might well dictate which side can score first yet facing him is a fearless Harlequins system.
If the London side can hold the line [improve on season tackles missed stats], attack and counter well [Quins scored 14 more tries than the Bears did], and execute their place kicks and find open field with their punts, it might allow them to play out an exciting 80 minutes.
Note: last meeting March 27 – Bristol 35 Harlequins 33
Match 2: Exeter Chiefs v Sales Sharks
Champions the Exeter Chiefs command respect. From Rob Baxter at the helm, to a run-on team that includes Joe Simmonds and Stuart Hogg, each time they play the Chiefs look to be on top of their game. Comfortable in the ruck and maul, the team is ready to carry the ball. Meters gained are as much made by the pack, then they are in the outside back. Although in quoting that statistic, Henry Slade can direct the backs to each side of the field where Sale may need to man up instead of drifting on the inside.
News update: Dave Ewers and Sam Skinner were handed suspensions by Premiership Rugby. The world-class flankers will be missed, and how the starting back three shore-up their combination is one area of concern for Baxter and all Exeter fans.
Faf de Klerk has shown all year that his play in the Northern Hemisphere, is a well-matched as his game in Super Rugby. He and his teammates have given the club their first opportunity of a Premiership title since 2006, and they will all want to grab that with both hands. Outside de Klerk is Marland Yarde, and inside him will be Tom Curry. Those are great options, and if anything was learned by their Round 22 one-point loss to Exeter, it will be about option taking.
See you next week @ExeterChiefs 🙌
— Sale Sharks 🦈 (@SaleSharksRugby) June 12, 2021
While the bookmaker’s odds could point to Devon, Sandy Park is not a fortress entirely. Losses to Bristol and Northampton will give Sharks’ fans some hope. And for a predator, the scent is what they will focus on. Yet for the hosts, it will be the home support that will buoy them, as they look to avoid any bite from the fourth-placed side.
Note: last meeting June 12 – Exeter 20 Sale 19 [February 26; Sale 25 Exeter 20]
In conclusion, you may find it harder to judge than first forecast. While one team has enjoyed an unscheduled week’s relief, that does not mean an easier route. All four 2020/21 Premiership playoffs sides need to meet their opposition head-on, and these two encounters will hold the domestic crowd’s attention no doubt before the International window opens.
Look for individuals to want to sign off on this crazy, Covid-affected calendar year. To cap it off some careers with a highlight, especially when Twickenham will be permitted a large majority of its capacity, to make the Final a celebration for the nation. Something that every stakeholder deserves, after surviving a challenging year to now enjoy a highly anticipated knockout finals series.
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