Opening the penultimate weekend on the domestic calendar, this year’s Gallagher Premiership semifinals start with the enthralling Bristol Bears vs Harlequins, before Exeter vs Sales completes the preliminary finals playoffs.
At the outset of this long and arduous 2020/21 Gallagher Premiership campaign, many of those predicting who would be holding the trophy at this point will no doubt have picked Exeter Chiefs. Experienced, well qualified, and primed to meet another challenge.
Though in saying all that, if there was a team that posed a clear threat to Exeter’s hope of reclaiming their crown, it was Bristol Bears. And after 22 rounds of rugby union, that consideration has rung true, with the Bristol Bears vs Harlequins game being the one aspect of the 2021 playoffs, that is out of the control of Exeter or Rob Baxter.
Is it trophy time for the 2021 Bristol Bears?
Last season, they reached their first Premiership playoff since 2006/07. Propelled by big-name signings like Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra, by investment in young talent like Callum Sheedy and Harry Randall. Plus, a thrilling style that made them everyone’s second favourite team.
With a semi-final appearance now under their belts, a fantastic Challenge Cup victory, and now a first-place finish in the Premiership regular season, is it ‘trophy time?’
Bristol are starting to acclimatize to success. A full calendar year of sitting near to, or exactly at the top of the perch is great experience. Good practice you might call it – and it will not be long before Pat Lam adds a Premiership trophy tenure to the Ashton Gate record books.
However, before the engravers are called in, the little matter of Bristol Bears vs Harlequins needs to be settled.
While Bristol is becoming accustomed to such achievements, Harlequins has had little celebrate. Their season started in turmoil. Head coach Paul Gustard was gone in January, leaving the coaching quartet of Billy Millard, Nick Evans, Jerry Flannery, and Adam Jones to revitalize the squad.
Yet Quins have since improved twofold. Led by their talismanic fly-half Marcus Smith, they play without fear, keen to conjure up tries from anywhere on the pitch. Full credit, and a worthy adversary in the Bears’ quest for that club’s first final in over a decade.
Both teams are daring and exhilarating. It is a matchup that you almost wish was reserved for the final.
Semifinal number 1: Bristol Bears vs Harlequins
Recalling the harshly affected 2019/20 season, the Bears reached this stage last season only to be tamed by Wasps. Since then however, Bristol has polished the ‘mass of weapons’ they have at their disposal.
Meet the Bears talent pool
Many column inches are devoted to detailing the litany of attacking skill that Bristol possess. The dazzling feet of Charles Piutau, who makes up for every error by doing something outrageously entertaining seconds later. Or Piers O’Conor, one of the most consistent players in the Premiership. A player who is seemingly always in the right place at the right time both in attack and defence.
Their threats are there for all to see, everyone knows they will come at you with pace and offloads in abundance, but stopping them will be a tall task for Quins’ defence.
John Afoa has continued his great form well into his twilight years, and has been something for Bristol to build around. The arrival of Kyle Sinckler from Harlequins has not only improved their scrum, giving them a better platform with which to use their electrifying backline, but has added a lethal, bulldozing ball-carrier into a team whose players can create a gap from nothing.
Quins back to their ‘quintessential’ best
Speaking of creating gaps from nothing. Harlequins come into this tie as likely the most exciting team to watch this season. Just as likely to concede 40 points as they are to score them!
They have struck a perfect balance between experience and youthful exuberance. Joe Marler and Danny Care leading the way for Alex Dombrandt and Smith. Joe Marchant and Will Evans, both 24, are pivotal parts of Quins reaching their first playoffs in seven years. Notably, Evans leads the league with turnovers won with 29.
The trio of Care, Dombrandt, and Smith has run teams ragged. They operate within a collective consciousness. One bursts into a gap which no one else saw, and you can almost guarantee one of the other two will be there. Maneuvering past the opposition to support their colleague and carve up the defence.
Gap spotted 🔍
Gas hit ⛽️
Support found 🤝
Try scored 🙌
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) February 23, 2021
It is not usually a question of ‘if’ they will score, but ‘when’. Through Smith et al they create an array of chances. They thrive in broken play, where there are gaps mismatches for them to exploit. It is these opportunities from broken play that make Quins so dangerous. It is exactly why Bristol is the perfect team for them to face in the playoffs.
Bristol; like Quins, will attack from anywhere on the pitch. As eager to find the space as soon as possible, as their opponents are. The Bears’ open game plan will likely allow Quins to attack – even in a game with the fate of both club’s fortunes on the line.
As a whole, Bristol’s pack is full of strength, skill, and technical ability, though, it is not necessarily a pack you fear. Not in the same way as other teams. They will not completely stifle you like Exeter, or swallow you up and spit you out a broken man like Sale will but in saying that, Bristol should be favourites this Saturday.
And if this Bristol Bears vs Harlequins fixture isn’t a tough enough encounter, a semifinal at home will make it doubly hard for Quins, but in all sincereness ‘there is hope’ for the underdog.
Super Saturday June 19: 2020/21 Premiership playoffs
Semifinal 1 – Bristol Bears v Harlequins, Ashton Gate
Semifinal 2 – Exter Chiefs v Sale Sharks, Sandy Park
“Main photo credit”
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