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By Jeremy Guscott
IT’S great to see the Premiership as competitive as it is, with eight teams mathematically capable of making the top four play-offs with just four rounds to play. It’s certain that Exeter, the reigning Premiership champions, will be there, and almost sure to be at home – so they will expect to get to the final.
At the other end of the spectrum there is Bath, currently in eighth place, for whom an unbeaten run with bonus points is the only way of being in semi-final contention.
Bath were in a better position this time last season, and didn’t manage to make it, so I don’t believe that they have much hope this time. Bath’s big problem is with consistency, and after a season in which they appeared to win one and then lose one, if they finish in the top six to qualify for the European Cup it will be a big result.
Sale Sharks, who start the run-in at seventh in the table, forever exceed my expectations. Rightly or wrongly, they are a bit unfashionable, but I suspect Steve Diamond likes that ‘us against the world’ culture where they have to bat above their position.
Sale have players of international quality, and others who are pushing hard for Test honours who will be interesting other clubs. However, Diamond seems to be making the most of his wild bunch, and has also put a decent forward pack together. I’m thinking that if he qualifies for Europe that is a great achievement given where they are.
At Sale it’s outside-backs like Denny Solomona, James O’Connor, and Mike Haley who tend to grab the headlines. However, at most clubs it’s the 9 and 10 who run the show, and Sharks have done a bit of an Exeter by drafting in players from around the world like Faf de Klerk, who is an international quality scrum-half, and also fly-half AJ McGinty, who is a Steenson/Gopperth type of operator.
They will be going toe-to-toe with a Gloucester side who have qualification for Europe in their own hands if they win their two big home games against Harlequins and Bath. However, when it comes to the play-offs I believe it will be Exeter, Saracens, and Wasps – but that the A.N. Other will not be Gloucester.
I tend to go for a stable 9-10 combination, and while Willi Heinz has had a good season at scrum-half, Billy Burns has not had the most consistent of runs at fly-half.
The biggest threat to Newcastle making the play-offs is Leicester, who usually manage to go up a gear at this stage of the season. It could come down to their clash at Welford Road in the last round but one, and it will be fascinating because Newcastle have gone really well this season, with the biggest change their number of away victories.
Falcons are comfortable on their 4G pitch where others are not, and it gives them an edge, as does the fact that they have found belief in themselves at just the right time. Newcastle’s return to the top is brilliant for the game, for the region, and it is also a reward for all the hard work done by Dean Richards and his crew. It won’t be easy because I think Leicester will get 12 points by winning their two home matches, and winning one away – but it could all come down to the final round.
Wasps are the only team with the real ability to win an away semi-final, because to do that you have to have X-factor players – and they’ve got them.
You can kick to a side like Wasps because you know they will run back at you, and if you can force mistakes and squeeze them you have a chance, but they are the only side I can see being capable of beating Saracens or Exeter away from home. Saracens are battling the odds in the same way as England, which is not surprising given their number of English players. They have had a big injury to a big player like Billy Vunipola to contend with, and it has been huge losing him again.
However, they have a reputation for making changes without missing a beat – and even with a long injury list they are constantly adapting. At the same time they are at the top of everyone’s hit list, which is wearing.
Saracens have gone through an unprecedented patch of losses, and however hard you try to block out the rest of the world, it brings a bit of uncertainty. Since Exeter beat them in last season’s semi-final play-off the aura of invincibility has shrunk – even so, I expect them to finish second.
After losing in Europe, Saracens will be free to concentrate on the league, and I think they will push Exeter very hard.
Exeter are rather like Ireland. Their strategy is a bit formulaic, where they play one-out rugby and eventually punch over the line. However, when you have Test-quality players everywhere in the pack, including Don Armand, Dave Ewers, and the rocket, Sam Simmonds, as well as the tactical influence of Gareth Steenson and Henry Slade, you have plenty to play with.
Add to that the incisive running of Jack Nowell and Ollie Woodburn, and you have to back them to put themselves in a great position.
The Chiefs can play their tactical pattern blindfolded, but if they need to chase they have the game-breakers to do so. They are side that love to monopolise possession, they don’t cough the ball up easily, and if they do they work very hard to get it back.
That’s why it is very hard to look beyond an Exeter v Saracens final – unless Wasps find some magical stuff.
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