We are in the midst of the closest Premiership relegation battle in years. While the top of the table is part secured, with Exeter Chiefs, Saracens and Gloucester all but sure of a playoff place, the bottom end of the table is becoming an increasingly fraught and desperate contest.
At the weekend, the bottom three sides all failed to pick up a single point; Leicester Tigers were humbled in a 52-20 home thrashing at the hands of Exeter Chiefs, Worcester lost 28-16 away to Wasps and Newcastle, despite a valiant effort, went down 26-12 away at Saracens. Only Bristol Bears managed to get anything out of the weekend, courtesy of a losing bonus point in their 26-19 Twickenham contest with Bath.
Only eight points separate Bristol in 9th from Newcastle in 12th, while 10th place Leicester are only five points – or a bonus point victory – above bottom place. Although those just above the bottom four (Wasps and Northampton) are not mathematically secure yet, they have likely done enough to stay up. Looking back at my prediction for this season, I had both Leicester and Newcastle in the playoffs – this unpredictable and, at times, thrilling season has made a something of a fool of me. But that is what makes the Premiership so great.
Here are the bottom four’s remaining fixtures for the season:
9th Bristol Bears (37 points)
Fixtures: Saracens (H), Leicester Tigers (A), Sale Sharks (H), Newcastle Falcons (A)
Bristol face a tough first fixture, with a home game against reigning champions Saracens. They then go away to fellow strugglers Leicester, before a tricky home game against Sale and the potentially instrumental final game against Newcastle.
Ignoring the Saracens game, given the way this season is going, Bristol are equally likely to take three wins from those final games as they are three losses. Head coach Pat Lam has his eye on Europe, and while you feel that is a tough ask, securing a single win and a bonus point or two from these final games should be enough to secure Premiership rugby next season. How valuable could that bonus point against Bath be in the end?
10th Leicester Tigers (34 points)
Fixtures: Newcastle Falcons (A), Bristol Bears (H), Harlequins (A), Bath (H)
What can you say about Leicester right now? The fallen giants are staring down the barrel of the gun – they have just been pumped at home by Exeter, conceding the record number of points (52) in a game in their Premiership history, and sit bottom in terms of points conceded, an astonishing 532. They will also likely face at least some of the run-in without their captain Tom Youngs, after his red card at the weekend, and will definitely be without his brother Ben, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. It looks bleak.
What they have in their favour is arguably one of the less difficult sets of fixtures. They face two of their fellow relegation battlers, Newcastle and Bristol, while finish with a home game against inconsistent Bath. Those first two games will be absolutely crucial – a ten-point swing in the table is at stake in both.
What certainly counts against them is the complete absence of any experience of this kind of relegation fight. More used to contesting for the playoffs and titles in recent years, how will their players respond to this kind of challenge? On paper they look to have a squad to compete with the best in the league, but something is rotten at Leicester and if they lose that first crucial game against Newcastle, heads will drop further and panic could run rife.
11th Worcester Warriors (32 points)
Fixtures: Sale Sharks (H), Gloucester (H), Northampton Saints (A), Saracens (H)
I fancied Worcester to go down at the start of the season – one of the few predictions I made that wasn’t a million miles out. They also have a very tough run in – two of their remaining home games are against top-four opposition, while they also have to navigate a tricky trip to Franklin’s Gardens. That first game at home to Sale therefore becomes the most crucial of the lot: fail to take anything from that and they are right up against it.
Worcester have scored a decent number of tries this season and actually have the best points difference of the bottom four clubs (just -69) and ran Exeter close just the other week. What may aid them is that final Saracens game; if Saracens field an understrength side, resting players in preparation for the playoffs, Worcester could cause an upset. I really hope that relegation is not decided by something like that, however.
12th Newcastle Falcons (29 points)
Fixtures: Leicester Tigers (H), Northampton (H), Gloucester (A), Bristol Bears (H)
Newcastle can consider themselves unlucky not to have taken at least a point from their game against Saracens, leading 6-5 at half time, only for an Alex Lozowski try at the death to take them out of the seven-point margin of defeat.
It is difficult to believe Newcastle are actually in this position at all; while Worcester have been serial relegation battlers, Bristol are newly promoted and clearly something is going catastrophically wrong at the Tigers, Newcastle have had all the signs of a club in good shape – bar actually winning league games. They reached the playoffs last year, have a great coaching team and scored memorable wins over French heavyweights Toulon and Montpellier in October. Even if they do not score another point, their 29 will be the best total by a relegated club since the 2011-12 season. The club to go down that time? Newcastle…
They have an awkward run in, facing two fellow relegation contenders and Gloucester and Northampton sides that look in good form. The first and final games against Leicester and Bristol therefore look pivotal; but given some recent promising form in wins over Worcester and Sale and close matches against Wasps and Saracens, you might back Dean Richards and his team to find the necessary points to squeak home in the end.
Ultimately, I think I will have to stick with my original prediction of Worcester to be relegated – they have possibly the most difficult series of fixtures and I think Newcastle will steal at least a win or two to leapfrog them. So much could depend on what team Saracens field in that final fixture against the Warriors. Leicester are possibly the other team most at threat, their shocking form and loss of two key leaders could see them implode. Whatever the result, it will come down to the finest of margins.
How do you think the relegation fight will play out?
By Henry Ker