The past weekend saw some great games of rugby in the Premiership, with local derbies being the main feature, as Leicester hosted Northampton, and Quins traveling to Saracens. Whilst there was some quality rugby played, it also threw up some fascinating results. With most teams having nine games left to play, the Premiership play-off race is starting to really heat up, but who’s going to make it?
What makes the play-off race so exciting this season is how many teams are involved. Looking at the table, it appears that there are now nine teams in contention chasing those four coveted spots. Quite clearly that does not go, with five teams very disappointed if they are the ones to miss out. If Bristol had not lost on Friday night at home to London Irish, adding to their recent good form, the race would have been within ten teams making it a truly competitive sprint to the finish. Bristol’s loss does mean that they are probably now out of the running, a disappointment to a team that was a losing semi-finalist last season; and a team that was much fancied before the season started to emulate their top-four finish again.
The Premiership play-off race
As a result of this being such a wide field, trying to work out who will be successful in this season’s Premiership play-off race becomes very tough. There is a strong case to be made for all nine, making it even harder. However, from first viewing of the table, it looks like there are two clubs who, whilst not mathematically secure, look very likely to be in the mix come the end of the season. League leaders Leicester Tigers and Saracens in second position have 61 and 53 points respectively and have both shown a consistency in their results that is far and away a level above their opposition teams. As a result, it would come as a massive shock if either club falls away in the run-in, and does not make those Play-Off places. Not only do both teams look in good shape for a top-four spot, they also are in prime position for a crucial home semi-final, with Tigers 14 points ahead of Gloucester in third, and Saracens six points ahead themselves. Both clubs are showing that they look like they have a strong enough squad depth to allow them to cope with injuries and international call ups, with multiple big names currently with Eddie Jones’ England side.
This, therefore, leaves a very tightly packed group, which is where this play-off race becomes so exciting and fascinating. The seven clubs from Gloucester in third position down to Sale in ninth, are separated by only eight points, and with many clubs having to play each other, it would not be much of a surprise to see the final weekend becoming a showdown amongst numerous teams, with bonus points also having a part to play. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that each game and each point being played for is crucial. This really could be the best Premiership Play-Off race the league has ever seen.
Gloucester and Harlequins currently reside in the remaining Play-Off spots. The Cherry and Whites have had a good season, and like Leicester, are on a turnaround under their management team. Head Coach George Skivington has followed a similar blueprint to Borthwick and has built a team based upon a tough, uncompromising pack, with a very strong rolling maul that has become such an effective weapon. With a pack as potent as Gloucester’s, it helps that in their backs they have Adam Hastings or Lloyd Evans and Billy Twelvetrees at 10 and 12 respectively, who can help control the possession and territory and ensure that Gloucester can play in the areas of the field they want to, and put pressure on their opponents. Out wide they have raw talent and speed in Louis Rees-Zammit, Olly Thorley and Johnny May (when fit), who can exploit gaps and space out wide with top drawer finishing. Gloucester is a team to watch out for and is in a good position to take a play-off place.
Where this Premiership play-off race becomes so fascinating is that teams who have had a poor first half of the season, are now starting to fancy their chances as we enter the run-in as their fortunes and results improve. Conversely, there are those who have had a strong start to the season but are now under pressure with multiple injuries and Internationals being away to still make the top four. Wasps and Quins are two clubs that fit the opposite scenarios perfectly. Wasps have been decimated by injuries in the first half of the season, with an injury list so long, it is an achievement in its own right that they have kept in the hunt for a play-off place. Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson and Paulo Odogwu are three big hitters for them, who would be a loss for all clubs, but who have been missing for the vast majority of the season for Wasps. Only now are they coming back to full fitness, which has coincided with Wasps’ uptick in form. Home wins against Tigers and Saracens have been backed up by wins on the road against Exeter and Bath, with the win against the Chiefs coming with the clock firmly in the red. They are a side on the up, with momentum firmly behind them, and with more and more players coming back available. Wasps now will definitely fancy their chances of timing their run to perfection.
On the flipside, Quins are a team becoming a victim of their success. Their Title victory last season was helped by having the availability of Joe Marler, Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt for the entirety of the 6 Nations period. This ensured they could build up a strong head of steam under a new coaching regime which took them to glory. This season, however, all three are now with England and their loss is starting to show. Throw in an injury list that has come at just the wrong time for Quins and they are now facing the perfect storm. Three league defeats in a row have stalled their progress and pulled them back into the chasing pack. Now Quins are facing a battle to regain momentum to make sure they are still in the mix when their players come back. Whilst not impossible to turn around, it is not beyond the realms of thought that the 6 Nations is the period that takes away their hopes of regaining their League title, after being the same tournament that spurred them to that glory last season. They are helped by home fixtures against Wasps, Leicester and Gloucester, however still have to travel to Irish, Northampton and Exeter. Six games against fellow Play-off chasers could be a blessing or a curse for them. Quins more than most have a fascinating run-in.
Like Wasps, Sale Sharks have had an indifferent first half of the season, with results going against them. Under the stewardship of Alex Sanderson, they reached the Play-Off semi-finals last season and would have had high hopes for repeating that this year. However, with injuries and their South African contingent being away not helping matters, their progress has stalled and they have spent large periods at the wrong end of the table. However, they, like Wasps, are getting their big hitters back on the park more regularly and it is showing. Consecutive wins against Leicester, Quins and Worcester have not only saved their season, but put them firmly in the mix for a run to the Play-Offs. However, their next 4 fixtures could fully determine their season more than most. They entertain London Irish and Gloucester, however have to travel to Northampton and Exeter, who are also in the chasing pack. Given how tight it is in the middle of the table, they have an opportunity to really put themselves into contention if they can continue their winning run, however defeats could halt their charge at source.
The Inconsistent Ones
The final group of contenders are three clubs that have been inconsistent throughout the season, which may ultimately cost them. Exeter, Northampton Saints and London Irish have all shown throughout the season glimpses of what they are really capable of. However, their issues have been around how to do it consistently. It is why all three teams have bounced around the middle of the table all season, with none really able to string a set of results and performances together to challenge the top clubs. With nine games left, they cannot be ruled out as they all possess the talent and the players to find that consistency. However, time is starting to run out. But with the table being as tight as it is, now would be a great time to get their run going and make a charge for the play-offs.
What helps everyone is that with so many teams involved in the hunt for those coveted positions, there will be a lot of fixtures still to play amongst those chasing clubs. Therefore, this creates the possibility of the points requirement for the top being lower than previous years. There are also two extra fixtures created by there being 13 teams in the league this year, potentially giving more opportunities for more points.
Trying to choose who will succeed in the Premiership play-off race is almost impossible, with so much to play for and with so many teams involved. The likely scenario is that, barring a monumental collapse, Leicester Tigers and Saracens will be in there, to be joined by Wasps and Gloucester. What is fair to say is that with so much rugby to play, and how tight it is, we are really in for a treat as the drama unfolds.
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