With three games left in the regular season of the Aviva Premiership, seven teams are competing for the all-important playoff places. While Exeter Chiefs have already clinched a place, and in need of only two more points to be assured of a home semi-final, the other three are still up for grabs. Saracens are in a pretty dominant position for another – six points clear of the chasing pack – but only five points (or a bonus-point victory) separate the other five teams. Bath (I believe) are still technically in with a mathematical chance but would need an absurd series of results to make it happen.
A lot of the teams also have fixtures against the other challengers coming up – it should make for some serious entertaining rugby. I have taken a look at the form and upcoming fixtures of the contenders to try and decide who stands the best chance of reaching the knock-out rounds.
Premiership table as it stands:
1 Exeter Chiefs – 70 points*
2 Saracens – 62
3 Leicester Tigers – 56
4 Wasps – 56
5 Newcastle Falcons – 54
6 Sale Sharks – 53
7 Gloucester – 51
A the start of the year Tigers were sitting in lowly ninth place, unfamiliar territory for a team used to being one of the giants of the league. Even as a fan, I must admit I had written off their chances of reaching the playoffs this year – it would have been the first time in 13 seasons they failed to make the top four.
I was foolish to doubt them. Tigers, as they always do, have peaked at just the right time and are sitting on a brilliant run of form and results. Mark Bakewell’s appointment in February as forwards coach seems to have been a masterstroke, he has transformed the Leicester pack into a powerful and aggressive unit (recent returnee Ellis Genge in particular looks a man possessed) and that is making all the difference for a backline filled with some prodigious talent. Ben Youngs is also due back from injury shortly and will be a valuable addition in such a crucial run of fixtures.
Northampton Saints (H), Newcastle Falcons (H), Sale Sharks (A)
While east-midlands derbies are never the friendliest of fixtures, given the two sides respective form, Tigers should be pretty confident of winning this, and with a bonus point. However, they then face two of the other contenders in Newcastle and Sale. In particular, Sale away – and if the Sharks come in still in the hunt off the back of a couple of victories – could be a decider and a real banana skin for the Tigers.
If they can put in a dominant victory over the Saints, they will be in pole position for qualifying for the playoffs yet again, a small miracle given their early form. But they need to beware the threat of Newcastle and Sale, particularly if those teams are still in contention. But given their form, I will back Leicester to qualify.
Consecutive narrow losses to fellow playoff hopefuls Sale and Leicester have dented a strong league-table position for Wasps. They have now slipped to fourth and will be nervously looking over their shoulder at the likes of Newcastle and Sale who sit within one win worth of points.
For all their stardust in the back line, Wasps pack have struggled recently against the likes of Leicester and been unable to generate the front-foot ball they need. They have the ability, however, and they bounced back from poor form already this season.
Worcester Warriors (H), Northampton Saints (H), Newcastle Falcons (A)
The good news for Wasps is they have a struggling Worcester at home up first and that should give them a boost, possibly with a bonus point. That said, Worcester are no whipping boys and recently overturned Newcastle – plus they are still not mathematically certain of avoiding relegation and have Northampton Saints and tenth place in their crosshairs. Saints themselves are then Wasps’ next opponents, and a victory there would put them in a strong position.
The final round and Newcastle away will worry them, however. Should Newcastle pick up wins themselves, and potentially with a couple of bonus points, Wasps could find themselves neck-and-neck with the Falcons, going up north to Kingston Park for the decider. Not a position to be welcomed by any side.
I think Wasps two-point advantage over the Falcons, and a relatively easier set of fixtures, may just about see them over the line into the play-offs – but one slip up and Falcons will pounce. Right now, qualification is in the balance.
The Falcons have emerged from the realm of being labelled ‘dark horses’ into genuine top-four contenders. It is tribute to Dean Richards and his brilliant coaching squad, who have gradually moulded this side into a combative and dangerous proposition for any opposition. While the season is in danger of stalling a bit, particularly after a disappointing loss to Worcester in the last round, they definitely look like achieving a Champions Cup place next year.
However, they still have Wasps in their sights and know the playoffs are attainable. One important consideration is Newcastle and Gloucester still have European rugby, with a Challenge Cup semi-final between the two due on 20 April. An additional gruelling encounter could push an already tired-looking Falcons squad.
Sale Sharks (H), Leicester Tigers (A), Wasps (H)
Newcastle have one of the hardest set of fixtures coming up – all three opposition still have something to play for and will be brutal matches. There are no easy(er) games for them, compared to Leicester and Wasps above them – that said, they have two home games and given their ability at Kingston Park they can be confident.
Between them and Sale, I think Newcastle have the edge at chasing down the two teams above them – but a tough fixture list will need them to come out fighting, starting with that vital game against Sale. Will that European semi-final have an impact? Definitely in with a chance and between them and Wasps for the final place in my opinion.
Sale are in good form since two close away losses to Bath and Saracens: beating Northampton before scoring eight tries against Worcester and edging Wasps by a point. Steve Diamond, like Dean Richards, has done a great job punching above his team’s weight – they are bringing through great young English talent, like the Curry twins, coupled with some exciting star names.
That said, it is one of their star names who could hurt their chances. Denny Solomona has been banned for four games over an alleged homophobic slur directed towards Worcester Warriors’ Jamie Shillcock – in this tightest of run-ins, could his bit of try-scoring magic have made a difference?
Newcastle Falcons (A), Exeter Chiefs (A), Leicester Tigers (H)
Like Newcastle, this is a seriously hard set of fixtures for Sale, but unlike the Falcons, two are away. After that crucial first match against their key rivals for the playoffs, Sale have to travel to Sandy Park and take on likely-table-toppers Exeter.
This will be a difficult one to predict. Should Exeter slip up in their game against London Irish or they fail to have secured top seed yet, then it is difficult to see Sale winning. However, if it is all tied up for Exeter, they may consider resting some of their best players to keep them fresh for the knock-out games and Sale could cause an upset. That would pave the way for a wonderful final decider against the Tigers.
Sale have good recent form, but a tough set of fixtures make qualification very challenging. That said, if a couple of results go their way, and if Exeter decide to rest players, they will be right in the mix.
Gloucester were sitting pretty in the playoff spots at the start of 2018. However, a few disappointing games – including a hammering by Exeter last weekend – and a resurgent Tigers, coupled with the steady form of Sale and Newcastle, have seen them fall down the pecking order and five points away from third and fourth place.
This will be a tough assignment for the Cherry and Whites – particularly as, like Newcastle, they also have that European semi-final to come. Gloucester may wish to target that as an additional route into the Champions Cup.
Harlequins (H), Bath (H), Saracens (A)
One thing in their favour in their fixture list. While normally Harlequins and a west-country derby could hardly be called easy fixtures, the fact that the two oppositions’ seasons are next to over could play in their advantage. Bath will still hope they can grab Champions Cup rugby but sit seven points behind Sale. Quins meanwhile are purely playing for pride – and have just announced director of rugby, John Kingston, will be leaving at the end of the season. Dark times for Harlequins.
Saracens away looks to be a likely sticking point however, unless they decide to rest players for the playoffs like I mooted Exeter might.
I think the playoffs might be a step too far for Gloucester. However, should they gain some momentum in with big wins over Quins and Bath everything will change. But I think getting into the Champions cup, whether via the top six or through the Challenge Cup, would be a more realistic goal.
My money is on Exeter, Saracens and Leicester competing in the playoffs, with one of Wasps or Newcastle. The head says Wasps, the heart hopes the Falcons. But if we end up with a decider at Kingston Park in the final round, I am backing Newcastle. This will definitely be fun to watch.
Who do you think will reach the playoffs? And who looks favourites for the title?
By Henry Ker