Preview: final weekend of the Aviva Premiership

Ben S Roar Guru

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    This week sees the final round of the Aviva Premiership before the playoffs begin.

    There is still a lot to play for: English players are playing to impress national team coach Stuart Lancaster, other players are bidding farewell to their clubs before they depart overseas, and most significantly players will be playing to push their clubs further up the table.

    And with all games scheduled for simultaneous kick-offs, the players won’t necessarily be aware what is happening in the other matches.

    The top three clubs, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers and Saracens, will all be looking for a home semi-final, and Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs will be battling for that fourth play-off spot, with the Saints a single point clear of the Chiefs. Whoever finishes fifth will join Sale Sharks as the final English side to qualify for the Heineken Cup next season.

    London Irish, Gloucester and Bath could all swap positions, which has financial implications. At the bottom end of the table London Wasps and Newcastle Falcons battle to avoid last place. Worcester Warriors sit secure in the mezzanine.

    Significantly, it is possible that neither Wasps or Newcastle will be relegated this season as only one of the top four clubs in the division below satisfy the criteria for promotion: Bristol. Obviously should Bristol win the Championship then one Premiership club will be relegated, but is hardly an ideal situation where only one club can effectively challenge for promotion. Bedford Blues and the Cornish Pirates did not even bother having their premises critiqued for promotion which illustrates just how far rugby union has yet to develop in England.

    Northampton Saints host Worcester at Franklins Gardens, and will be looking to consolidate fourth place and a play-off position. Aside from a home beating off of Leicester in mid-April the Saints are on a good run of form having thrashed Bath and won away at Exeter Chiefs, which is no mean feat. Chris Ashton is once again finding his way over the try line, and the pack, despite the loss of Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Calum Clark, is still powerful. The Saints have a strong home record and will be bidding farewell to stalwarts Jon Clarke, James Downey, Andy Long and Roger Wilson. The only issue is who Jim Mallinder selects in the fly half jersey, with his chopping and changing between Stephen Myler and Ryan Lamb a hallmark of his season.

    Worcester Warriors have defied expectations this season, entering the Premiership as favourites to be relegated immediately. Unsurprisingly, under Richard Hill the side was strong up front, technically accomplished at the set-piece and robust in the backline, albeit a little over-reliant on the finishing powers of Miles Benjamin and Marcel Garvey, both of whom are leaving the Warriors for Leicester Tigers and Castres respectively. The Warriors recently lost to London Irish at Sixways, which Hill attributed to the squad being happy just having escaped relegation. Although the players might have got that out of their system, it is unlikely that they will be turning up believing they can rout the Saints. While Northampton have so much to play for, the Warriors just have pride. Club stalwart and defensive lynchpin Dale Rasmussen will be leaving Worcester at the end of this season.

    Exeter Chiefs travel to Saracens. The Chiefs will be hoping that they win and Saints lose. If the Saints win then they will not make the play-offs. Saracens have been quite up and down in recent weeks, thrashing Sale Sharks 9-45 in Manchester, losing to Harlequins at Twickenham, being routed at hone by Clermont, and winning away in Newcastle. Undoubtedly Saracens are a good side, but they aren’t coming into a vital game on the back of a good run of form, and the ambitious Chiefs have a lot to play for. With Chiefs coach Rob Baxter publicly stating his players deserve more England recognition, there could be extra pressure on certain Chiefs players.

    The issue with Saracens this season, as it was last season and the season before, is that their attacking play is jarringly one-dimensional. That said, their Springbokesque kick-chase game lends itself to knock-out rugby. Personally I don’t think Saracens have that aura of power as they did last season, and it appears that Mark McCall is unsure of who his best fly half is, Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell.

    Exeter Chiefs will have been gutted at losing to the Saints two weeks ago, but they have defied all expectations and second season syndrome to be challenging for fourth spot. Winning at Saracens is a tough ask, but it is not beyond the Chiefs who have a very robust set-piece, a well balanced back row and a combination of pace and power in the backs. Sireli Naqelevuki is finding his feet after an injury lay-off and adds serious impetus, and Ignacio Mieres at 10 is a very reliable kicker. There is a perception in the Premiership that the Chiefs crash and bash and then kick for position, but they are very capable of playing some neat and precise rugby. I don’t think this game will be a spectacle, but I can see it being very, very close.

    In the basement battle London Wasps take on Newcastle Falcons. To avoid last place the Falcons have to beat Wasps, score four tries in the process, and prevent Wasps from accruing a losing bonus point.

    Wasps have had a diabolical season. They have suffered a horrific injury list including Steve Thompson, Joe Worsley, Tom Rees and Dan-Ward Smith, but they’ve also been very bad defensively and seem badly coached. Granted they have had a high casualty ratio, but they’ve effectively been operating with the same squad all season due to World Cup call-ups. Wasps were pretty fortunate that they managed a losing bonus point against Bath after Sam Vesty dropped the ball over the line prior to grounding what would have been Bath’s fourth try, and they were also heavily beaten by Harlequins recently, but they did manage a good performance against Biarritz in Europe, however. With fly-half Nicky Robinson and centre Dom Waldouck available, and English starlets Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Joe Launchbury they have players capable of genuine quality, however, they will need to overcome a very gritty, albeit limited, Falcons side.

    The Falcons have been pretty shocking all season under the tenure of the confused Alan Tait, but Gary Gold has brought a new organisation and determination to the outfit, despite a host of inconsistent selections. The Falcons have a very rugged set-piece, with the destructive Euan Murray at tight head, and the lineout technician James Hudson captaining the team, but the backs lack finesse, relying on the booming boot of Jimmy Gopperth, and a crash ball merchant, James Fitzpatrick, at twelve.

    This game could go either way, as cliched as that is. Nicky Robinson isn’t the most consistent of place kickers and the absence of lineout kingpin Marco Wentzel should hand a distinct advantage to the Falcons. Despite having the passing skills of Peter Stringer and the reliability and skills of Corne Uuys, the Falcons backs are unlikely to score the four tries necessary, so this could turn into a real dogfight up front with Gopperth looking to pin Wasps in their own twenty two and the forwards spoiling from there.

    At Edgeley Park Sale Sharks play Harlequins. Sale are basically confirmed of finishing sixth, so only have pride and enjoyment to play for. Harlequins on the other hand are looking to consolidate first place.

    The Sharks have been one of the surprise packages of the season. I’ve never been a fan of Steve Diamond, questioning his selections, purchases and old-school attitude, but he has breathed new life into the club this season. Diamond removed himself from hands on coaching, giving the reins to Tony Hanks and things progressed, with a few peaks and troughs. The side were playing some nice rugby with good handlers from one to fifteen, but defensively had far too many lapses. Following a big home loss, Diamond made another of his emotive public outbursts, Hanks was gone and Diamond took over. To be fair to the man things have tightened up and the side has notched up some solid results. A sixth place finish is certainly something to be proud of considering the huge player influx at the beginning of the season. With big names like Cipriani and Richie Gray signed for next season the future looks bright.

    However, Harlequins are a good side too and will be looking to secure first place and a game at the Stoop. This is a key game for the club, and the players will likely be hurting from a humbling over in France from Toulon and a home loss to a rampant Leicester side. This is the chance for Harlequins to go into the play-offs with a good result behind them. The tight five has been surprisingly strong all season, with George Robson leading well from lock, and young English hopeful George Lowe cutting some excellent angles from the midfield and the return to try scoring form of Ugo Monye adding an element of danger. With the tried and tested combination of Easter-Care-Evans this could prove to be a very expansive game. The only down side is that Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw aren’t hitting the same heights they were hitting prior to the Six Nations.

    Two free-flowing but inconsistent sides meet at Reading: London Irish v Gloucester. If the weather holds this could be a good game. Mike Catt is departing from the Irish coaching panel, and with a new head coach looming the Gloucester players should be looking to impress any potential new bosses. Likewise, the Irish players should be looking to show their worth to Brian Smith.

    Delon Armitage is in good form for Irish and will be looking to say farewell on a high note. Daniel Bowden is also leaving, allegedly for Leicester Tigers. Young hopefuls Tom Homer, Jonathon Joseph (a young player of the year nominee), Matt Garvey and Jamie Gibson will want to excite Stuart Lancaster too. Irish have been frustratingly inconsistent this season, and with the return of Brian Smith and the departure of Mike Catt this could be the last game for quite a few players, although I have read that Irish want to cut their coaching staff in order to fund transfers. Whoever they bring in they have the English nucleus of a very good side.

    Gloucester parallel Irish in that they play an exciting brand of rugby, have a vibrant academy, have a host of young English talent and are periodically vulnerable up front – being more renowned for their backs. Unfortunately though, speedster Jonny May hasn’t been able to reproduce his heroics of a few months ago, and Charlie Sharples is injured, which is a blow, although Sharples has suffered slightly from second season syndrome. Significantly, midfield duo Mike Tindall and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu will be playing their last game for Gloucester, which should please the RFU disciplinary panel no end, and local Gloucester boy and former England number eight will turn out for USAP Perpignan next season with current club colleague and Scottish hit-man Al Strokosch.

    Bearing in mind that Lancaster is taking forty men to South Africa. Jonny May, James Simpson-Daniel, Freddie Burns and Rupert Harden will also be hoping for a strong performance. Problematically, Gloucester aren’t coming into the game with any form to support them. Following the departure of Bryan Redpath it’s obvious that things haven’t been well behind the scenes for a good while now. In the circumstances Irish should be heavy favourites.

    Finally, Leicester Tigers entertain Bath, which will be Sir Ian McGeechan’s final game with the club. Normally this fixture would excite the average punter, but given the poor play of Bath this season this has a Leicester rout written all over it.

    The Tigers are in pretty irresistible form at the moment, scoring heavily in their previous two fixtures, and winning away at Northampton and Harlequins. If the Tigers should manage to attain a home game in the play-offs then the other sides should be very wary. Toby Flood is really picking up a head of steam, as was Tom Croft prior to his injury. The pack is rumbustious, and the backline is finishing off some excellent moves. In reality this should be a thunderous send off to fan favourite Alesana Tuilagi.

    Despite a plethora of new signings Bath have been pretty dreadful under Sir Ian McGeechan, and the last thing they need right now is a trip to Welford Road. Bath do have a very good squad, but obviously all is not well behind the scenes and they have looked very badly coached this season. Despite this Francois Louw has been a machine all season, and his loss will be keenly felt.

    Perusing over the Bath squad it seems bizarre to look at some of the results that have come their way, and with the Tigers so potent, it is hard to see where Bath can gain a stranglehold. Michael Claassens and Nick Abendanon have been typically energetic, but Matt Banahan, citing personal reasons, has been pretty much invisible on field, and Stephen Donald clearly needs a good pre-season under his belt. Ryan Caldwell has impressed at lock, and the front row have had their moments as the weather has improved, but it just seems there are too many chinks in the Bath armour.

    I can’t see many surprises occurring this weekend and would expect the only away victory being taken by Harlequins. I do have a suspicion that the Falcons will win, however, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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