Leeds’ remarkable victory at Kingston Park at the weekend kept the relegation race very much alive, and although the top four look relatively comfortable, it’s all to play for mid-table for the Heineken Cup places.
Leeds have a tricky run-in, with three games remaining to secure Premiership status next season. They travel to Wasps this weekend, then host Harlequins before an away match at Northampton on the final weekend.
Wasps are looking somewhat vulnerable with their various injury struggles and loss of form – they’ve picked up 5 points in their last six matches – but winning at Adams Park is never easy. Leeds beat Wasps twice in the league last year, but can they take the points this weekend? I think they’ll need to, because they won’t want to rely on beating either Quins or Northampton to survive.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have a game in hand over Leeds, but there are no easy points on offer. They host Northampton on Friday night, then play Leicester Tigers the following week before back-to-back fixtures with Bath in the course of 8 days – three of the traditional powerhouses of English rugby.
Technically Sale are not out of the woods yet, but their win over Gloucester means that I’m ruling them out of the race.
In a two-horse race then, the fact that Newcastle have three home games out of four, compared to Leeds’ one home fixture out of 3, is persuading me to lean towards Newcastle to stay up. This weekend is crucial though if Leeds can beat Wasps.
Leicester and Saracens look like clinching the home semi-final spots, with Gloucester and Northampton very likely to make up the top four.
The rearranged Gloucester v Northampton fixture next Tuesday night could decide who plays who in the semis, but the Cherry and Whites have a slightly tougher run-in and will probably end up in 4th.
London Irish, Harlequins and Bath have an outside chance of making the playoffs, and Bath have a game in hand over the other two – but they would need to win their remaining games and rely on Gloucester or Northampton to drop points, and I can’t see it happening.
Heineken Cup places
Instead, these teams should be concentrating on securing Heineken Cup rugby next season.
It’s looking like there will be only six English teams, unless Northampton can win the tournament this year and grant the team in 7th a place. I can see them beating Perpignan at home, but I think Leinster or Toulouse would have the experience to see them off in the final.
So I’m working on the basis of just two spots outside the top four. I think Bath will claim one, given their game in hand and their fixtures at home to Quins, against Wasps on St George’s Day and Newcastle twice where you’d fancy their chances.
It’s then a toss-up between Quins and Irish, neither of whom have particularly easy fixtures, but I’m going to go for Harlequins whose current form and momentum I think will carry them through. Sorry Benny Coles.
Top 4: Leicester, Saracens, Northampton, Gloucester
Other Heineken Cup places: Bath, Harlequins
What do you think? Do you see things differently? Here’s the current table from SportGuru: