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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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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • May 5th 2012 @ 2:44am
      Colin N said | May 5th 2012 @ 2:44am | ! Report

      Harlequins are certain to win! Have you seen the Sale side!!!? In terms of ability, it’s decent and there’s plenty of potential there, but they’re just going to be bullied by Quins up front.

      Anyway, I just want to start with Northampton. Mallinder is doing his best to ruin another fly-half. I said last season that they wouldn’t win anything with Myler at stand-off and I repeat the same thing. Lamb had a very good first half of the season from memory and, even when they lost, Lamb was putting in good performances. Then he suddenly starts introducing Myler more and more regularly, Lamb gradually loses confidence and he’s stuck between two guys again. It’s exactly the same situation he had with Geraghty.

      Having said that, I expect them to reach the play-offs, but you look at the stand-offs at other teams: Evans, Flood, Hodgson and they’re all a class above.

      As for the relegation battle, as much as I want Newcastle to stay up, or at least stay up by their own accord, I don’t think they will. I believe they will probably win, but as you said their backline is terrible. They lack pace which they showed against Saracens and it’s full of boshers like, as well as Fitzpatrick, Helleur and Uys.

      Having said that, they have a big pack and could quite easily smash an injury-stricken Wasps up front. I doubt they’re going to move it wide but if they can get the rolling maul going and the set-piece working well, Newcastle could quite feasibly get over the line four times.

      • May 5th 2012 @ 3:45am
        Ben S said | May 5th 2012 @ 3:45am | ! Report

        I knocked this up before I saw the sides, Colin. Harlequins are 1/10 at the bookies, btw. I can only imagine that Diamond is trying to expose the U20 players before they depart to the youth WC.

        I agree re: Mallinder. I think he’s vastly overrated as a coach, tbh. Keeps repeating the same errors. Saints should have been looking to bring in Twelvetrees as a 12 now that Downey has gone IMO (maybe they did), just to vary the play. They’re too one-dimensional IMO and now that Ashton is off I can see them struggling next season.

        I quite like,Uuys. He was always a very competent Super player, I just think he’s being badly utilised. Watching Fitzpatrick play AP rugby, the mind boggles…

        With Payne, Broster and Wentzel back too, I think Wasps should be able to hold their own, although I think Broster is slightly overrated. Lindsay is a big old boy as well. I think Cannon is pretty average, and despite the promise of the back row, I think the combined inexperience could be a real weakness in such a pressure game. Conversely, as much as I think Newcastle should have the edge, Golding and Murray are not the same players they were around 2009. I’ve flip flopped a bit there. But even if Newcastle do stay up who will they bring in as DOR? Wasps and Newcastle are both in pretty dire straits IMO.

        • May 5th 2012 @ 7:42am
          Colin N said | May 5th 2012 @ 7:42am | ! Report

          “I knocked this up before I saw the sides, Colin. Harlequins are 1/10 at the bookies, btw. I can only imagine that Diamond is trying to expose the U20 players before they depart to the youth WC.”

          Sorry, it wasn’t a criticism but an observation. As Sailosi said below, it’s so Sale get 80k from the RFU for the EQP. The likes of Jones and Mathie are technically English qualified which is why they play.

          Looking forward to seeing how Tommy Bell goes though. He’s done well for Leeds this season and has plenty of pace and skill.

          I agree about Twelvetrees – he would be the perfect foil for Pisi. Instead, Gloucester get him and I like the look of him and Trinder together. Also Artemyev’s gone off the boil in the second half of the year. They’ll certainly miss Ashton’s support lines and his link-up play with Foden, particularly if they continue to play an uncreative fly-half like Myler.

          Perhaps you’re right about the Wasps’ pack, but as I said about Sale and you said there, it’s quite often about experience up front. There are weaknesses in Wasps which there aren’t in Newcastle’s.

          “But even if Newcastle do stay up who will they bring in as DOR?”

          Dean Richards joins in August after his ban ends. I’m actually quite positive about Newcastle even if they do go down. I think most of their best players will stay and they have a rich backer in Semore Kurdi. I worry for Wasps. They don’t own their own ground, they have no owner and their crowds are decresing.

          • May 5th 2012 @ 9:15pm
            Ben S said | May 5th 2012 @ 9:15pm | ! Report

            You’re right re: Dean Richards. Totally forgot about that. I think he’ll be brilliant for them.

            I’ll look out for Bell, Colin.

            Are you playing the Aviva fantasy game, Colin?

            Sailosi, I didn’t know that. Cheers.

            • May 6th 2012 @ 7:20am
              Colin N said | May 6th 2012 @ 7:20am | ! Report

              I’m not Ben, what does it entail?

              I was there at Sale-Quins today, it was actually quite entertaining. Bell played okay, showed some nice touches and didn’t look particularly fazed. The lad Addison is class. He’s obviously very good with ball in hand, but I’ve been impressed with him defensively. I look forward to seeing how he develops next season.

              Quins weren’t at their best, but as I predicted above, they were too powerful up front. Robshaw and Easter (apart from his stupid yellow card) were excellent and Marler had a very good game, but it was Evans who dictated play and showed some exceptional touches. Wonderful player.

              All the games played out as predicted I guess, well apart from Gloucester getting a hammering – something is seriously wrong there.

              Shame about Newcastle, but from a personal point of view, I hope the Pirates can do a job on Bristol on Monday!!

              • May 8th 2012 @ 4:35am
                Ben S said | May 8th 2012 @ 4:35am | ! Report

                It’s just a fantasy rugby game, Colin. You pick a squad of 15 – you know the drill. Kind of like the Super 15 Fox game, but simpler.

                I’ll look out for Addison. Was it a close game? I haven’t seen the highlights yet.

                Gloucester have lost the plot in recent weeks – a bit like Jim Hamilton!

                Stunning result from the Pirates. I’d like to see Newcastle stay up as opposed to Bristol being in the Premiership. Hopefully Dean Richards can rebuild them.

              • May 8th 2012 @ 7:23am
                Colin N said | May 8th 2012 @ 7:23am | ! Report

                Yes it was, Sale had two good chances to score before Quins took over, the first ruled out for a push on Brown, a decision Diamond wasn’t very happy with.

                Quins were then dominant for the rest of the half and the early part of the second period, and deservedly took a 21-3 lead.

                But after Easter was sin-binned, Sale scored and were dangerous for several minutes after. If they could have scored another try in that period, who knows what could have happened?

                Overall, Quins deserved to win, but Sale battled throughout and it was an enjoyable game.

                Re: Addison, watch his work for Sale’s first try against Gloucester and then try and see his try on Saturday, it was superb.

                I thought Pirates were superb today, really impressive. I can see why people have been talking about Rob Cook. Cracking player.

                What are your predictions for the Premiership play-offs Ben?

              • May 10th 2012 @ 3:24am
                Ben S said | May 10th 2012 @ 3:24am | ! Report

                I’ll check him out.

                Hard to say re: the results without the teamsheets. I’d expect Tigers and Quins to win, but if Flood is out… I read the Austin Healey column today on and he said that Sarries look underpowered without Burger (and Brown too IMO), and I kind of agree. Conversely, Mafi is a like-for-like replacement for Croft. Tigers are on a good run of form, and they’re at home and want revenge. I can’t see Quins losing to a Saints side missing so many forwards either.


              • May 10th 2012 @ 10:41pm
                Colin N said | May 10th 2012 @ 10:41pm | ! Report

                Apparently Ford is going to start on Saturday. It will be a great test of hs abilities! It certainly puts the game more in the balance and it will be interesting to see how he deals with Sarries pressure game.

                I agree with what Healey says (he’s an excellent analyst isn’t he?) about Saracens without Burger and Brown, although I think it’s compounded by their continued selection of Melck (very average player) over Wray and the loss of Saull. Fraser is just not quite up to it yet. So overall, I would still back Tigers.

                As for Quins-Saints, obviously the hosts go in as favourites, but I think Northampton have a good chance. I think they will dominate the scrum and, providing Ashton’s fit, they have a backline that can challenge Quins, whose defence isn’t quite as assured as the others in the top-four.

              • May 12th 2012 @ 6:38am
                Ben S said | May 12th 2012 @ 6:38am | ! Report

                I’ve heard that about Ford too. Interestingly he’s not in the bench, which might indicate that Flood is going to pull out.

                I quiet like Healey and Kay. It’s useful to have recent ex-pros writing. For example, you’ll hear Stuart Barnes and Stephen Jones banging on about how great a scrummager Ayerza is, and yet Kay wrote that he was widely regarded as being a so-so scrummager at Leicester. I do like an inside voice as opposed to guesswork, which is all we get from most journos these days.

                Agree re: Melck. I can’t fathom the Sarries obsession with journeymen South Africans like Melck, Carstens and Hargreaves. I can only assume there’s a behind the scenes agreement somewhere.

                The Quins scrum has been quietly impressive this season, and Saints are basically playing two 5 locks. Plus Mujati hasn’t been as good this year as he was last season. It will be an interesting game. I also noticed that Mallinder went with Lamb…

    • May 5th 2012 @ 6:45am
      Sailosi said | May 5th 2012 @ 6:45am | ! Report

      I think you’ll find sale are selecting this side to take advantage of RFU bonuses.

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download The Roar’s iPhone App in the App Store here.

    • May 6th 2012 @ 6:26am
      King of the Gorgonites said | May 6th 2012 @ 6:26am | ! Report

      So how does the semi system work? Top 2 gets the home finals?

      Tough luck to Exeter.

      • May 6th 2012 @ 7:24am
        Colin N said | May 6th 2012 @ 7:24am | ! Report

        Yeah, first (home) versus fourth and second (home) versus third. At least we’ll have different finalists this time around as Sarries have to go to Leicester.

        I do have a feeling that Northampton could turn out a performance at Harlequins though.

    • May 7th 2012 @ 6:20am
      cjones said | May 7th 2012 @ 6:20am | ! Report

      quins v saints on sky, tigers v sarries on espn by looks of it.

    • May 9th 2012 @ 8:29am
      Ben S said | May 9th 2012 @ 8:29am | ! Report

      Colin, do you use any other rugby blogs/forums? Rucku is long since closed, and I’ve been off the scene apart from here – and I have no interest in coming on the Roar anymore.

      • Columnist

        May 9th 2012 @ 8:38am
        Brett McKay said | May 9th 2012 @ 8:38am | ! Report

        Ben, it’d be a shame if that’s the case. Though I don’t get to see much of it, it’s your reports and previews like this one that help me keep track of goings on in the UK.. (with a notable mention to Col, too…)

        • May 9th 2012 @ 11:24pm
          Ben S said | May 9th 2012 @ 11:24pm | ! Report

          That sounded a bit harsh, Brett. Nothing personal, I’ve just noticed that some of the posters like Sam T, OJ, Pothale etc are posting less and less.

      • May 10th 2012 @ 10:45pm
        Colin N said | May 10th 2012 @ 10:45pm | ! Report

        I used to use 606 on the BBC but of couse that closed down with all the budget cuts. Twitter’s pretty good as well, are you on that?

        • May 12th 2012 @ 6:33am
          Ben S said | May 12th 2012 @ 6:33am | ! Report

          I am, but I don’t use it, tbh. I’ve noticed Pothale and Dublin Dave and Scarlet have basically ceased posting, so I’m looking elsehwhere too.

          • May 12th 2012 @ 6:41am
            Darwin Stubbie said | May 12th 2012 @ 6:41am | ! Report

            I certainly know what you’re saying – I enjoy the Guardian blogs – not solely rugby but a good mix and more a banter – as it should be

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