We are into the endgame of the Premiership season. At the weekend Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors secured their top-flight futures for another season, while Newcastle Falcons look set for the drop (although Leicester Tigers are still not technically safe and are barely limping over the line). Meanwhile, thanks to Northampton Saints late run of form, the fight for fourth is still very much alive and five teams are battling it out for the final two Champions Cup spots.
Here are three talking points from the 20th round of the competition.
The Chiefs risk running out of steam
Exeter Chiefs laboured to a 17-15 win over Harlequins on Saturday. After securing a home play-off in record time, Exeter have looked a touch rudderless. Rob Baxter described it as an ‘emotion vacuum’, with nothing really at stake in any of their remaining games – although technically Saracens could still nick first place and the preferable play-off opponents should they take maximum points from the last two fixtures and Exeter fail to get anything.
It risks ending Exeter’s magnificent season with a whimper rather than a bang – particularly if they fail to rediscover their form and crash out to a challenger in the play-offs. Baxter curiously seems to have his work cut out in revitalising his team, an odd scenario for the table toppers, sitting on a whopping 81 points and the all-time record in their sights. That said, they still squeaked past Quins (who sit in 5th place), so they are still finding ways to win even when they are not playing to their best.
Meanwhile, their nearest challengers Saracens brushed past Wasps 31-14 with ease. Sarries still have a European final to contest, so there has been no slow-down in their end of season run (that second string slip up against Bristol the other week aside).
However, as with Exeter – and having secured their own home play-off, and with a showdown against Leinster on the horizon – Saracens will also approach these final league games with little riding on them.
Interestingly, it is Saracens versus Exeter this weekend. What should be one of the biggest and most exciting fixtures of the season: first against second and a likely preview of the grand finale. Yet it feels rather meaningless. Although bragging rights are on the line, they will likely be superseded by whoever wins the final; a victory here will mean nothing come the 1st June.
It is a curious by-product of the Premiership and the play-off system that in one of the final rounds of the season, a clash between the two best teams will be greeted with little interest.
England’s future is bright at seven
Friday evening threw up a curious, low-scoring affair between Bath and Sale, the Sharks edging it 6-3. A rather drab contest was livened up by the furious contest on the floor between two arch breakdown specialists: Sam Underhill and Tom Curry. Add in Tom’s similarly adept brother Ben and it was certainly a scrappy contest for the old-school forwards among us. Both made telling contributions and key turnovers, with T. Curry arguably just shading the battle.
England have been crying out for a true openside in the Neil Back mould for as long as I can remember (remember the whole Steffon Armitage debacle?) and then, like buses, two come along at once. Eddie Jones hasn’t had to make a selection decision between these two yet – they have managed to alternate being injured and fit between them, both performing brilliantly for their country when called upon. Come Japan, who will be in pole position? Could he field both in the same backrow?
At the moment, I think Curry just has the edge – he’s the current holder and I suspect Jones values his more aggressive breakdown play compared to Underhill’s destructive tackling. Whatever the end result, we finally seem blessed with genuine competition for the seven shirt.
Joe Marler speaks for us all on box kicking
With Nick White dithering at the bottom of a ruck, queuing up a box kick with the same laborious precision that is plaguing games the world over, Joe Marler spoke for us all: ‘You’re f***ing boring me, hurry up!’
Vintage @JoeMarler ?
Nic White takes his time over a box-kick clearance…
"YOU'RE BORING ME HURRY UP!"
Never shy to speak his mind! pic.twitter.com/c7LQ6YhWUJ
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 27, 2019
The train carriages had been sluggishly formed at the back of the ruck, the ball moved further away from the defensive line to rule out any chance of a charge down; it was nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before – apart from Marler’s refreshing input.
But it did highlight what a problem this has become. Like endlessly reset scrums, this is the kind of thing that can turn games to tedium, putting off newcomers and boring the seasoned fan alike. The ‘use it’ five-second rule was introduced to curtail this practice and while it has had an impact (if we actually think back, in the past some of the waiting times before kicks were actually criminal) it needs revisiting and referees to enforce with a bit more vigour. Start the countdown earlier please.
By Henry Ker