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Brendan Gallagher: Chiefs to beat Saracens but Wasps for title

There’s no guarantee a cracking regular season will produce two semi-final play-offs to remember next weekend but, frankly, it will be a major surprise if we aren’t treated to a couple of compelling and spectacular ties. The stars seem to have aligned perfectly.

Down at Sandy Park, first up, we see a repeat of last year’s final when the Chiefs got badly left in the blocks and trailed 23-6 at half-time having struggled to mount a meaningful attack in the first 40 minutes.

It’s a massive tribute to their tenacity that Exeter managed to stem the flow and narrow the lead to just three points after the break before Alex Goode eventually finished the job for Sarries 28-20 with a late try, but the Chiefs cannot allow Saracens to make another flying start. Mark McCall’s team are remorseless front runners, very few teams drag them back if they go ten points or more behind.

Somehow Exeter must match the huge physicality Saracens will bring to bear. We have enjoyed the Chiefs wonderful handling and continuity play all season but this game simply can’t be won without some major grunt from their tight forwards. You can’t beat Saracens without it, even Munster, in front of a packed house at the Aviva last month, couldn’t outmuscle Sarries up front.

Now is the time for Luke Cowan-Dickie to step up another level in the front row along with new England recruit Harry Williams and Ben Moon. Exeter have good strength in the front row with Jack Yeandle, Carl Rimmer and Tomas Francis also contending for those starting spots but have they got any one combination that can go toe to toe with Saracens for 80 minutes?

Ditto in the second row where Geoff Parling is still playing well and reading opposition throws like a book. Parling is likely to pack down with either Ollie Atkins or Dave Dennis and together they will have a major job on their hands combating Maro Itoje and a fresh George Kruis, who is beginning to hit his straps again after injury.

Combating Billy Vunipola will be a major issue – of course it will – and although Thomas Waldrom is enjoying his usual consistent, constructive try scoring season, the onus will probably be on the muscular Dave Ewers, below, another player returning from long term injury, to engage the England No.8 head to head. The veteran Kai Hortsmann, enjoying a wonderful Indian summer of a season, is another who might come into play here.

If the Chiefs can get a foothold in the game then they will be in business because no side is more patient with the hard-earned ball they win and everybody in the back division is both a creator and finisher. The onus never falls on one player to produce the goods.

Particularly enjoying the clash should be Henry Slade. For a player of his talents Slade, has been sparingly used by England in the last two or three seasons, mainly down to Owen Farrell’s pre-eminence and penchant for also playing 10 and12 which Slade does with equal facility.

It’s a problem in terms of Slade getting his break at Test level but he is an outstanding player and Saturday would be a good time to shine and perhaps convince Eddie Jones that he has finally earned a start ahead of George Ford when England venture down to Argentina next month.

Ollie Woodburn and James Short meanwhile have been among the form wingmen all season and would have every right to wonder why they won’t be on the plane to Argentina. Woodburn, in particular, rarely fails to leave his mark on a game either in attack or defence and although he has nothing to prove to those who watch Exeter regularly, another outstanding performance might make those who haven’t been paying attention sit up.

Later in the day Wasps tackle Leicester in front of another capacity crowd at the Ricoh with hopefully no kick-off delays this time. Wasps have been high-flying all season and, although they did stumble just a bit towards the end, that emphatic victory over Saracens –  albeit an understrength Sarries – saw them get their mojo back.

Leicester, in contrast, have been in the trenches most of the season desperately trying to fight their way into the top four. Beset with injuries to key players, and going through a transitional stage anyway, Tigers haven’t had to seek their troubles and are now on their third head coach since Christmas. To borrow, a tad, from Oscar Wilde, to lose one coach might be considered unfortunate but two is careless.

In such circumstances reaching the play-offs has been some achievement although did anybody seriously doubt that Tigers would find a bit of form towards the end? They always do, it’s in their DNA. They learned years ago that Premiership Rugby is a marathon not a sprint. This is the club that reached nine consecutive finals between 2005 and 2013.

Potentially there are some really nice match ups; Kurtley Beale v Telusa Veainu and Willie le Roux against fellow Springbok JP Pietersen, but the most important of all might be between two of the forgotten men of English rugby at fly-half – Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani.

Burns last appeared for England in the first Test in New Zealand in 2014 when he played particularly well in a narrow defeat while you have to go back to 2008 since Cipriani was allowed a Test start by England.

Tigers are battle-hardened, they have built some decent momentum and the entire club will be pulling like never before behind skipper Tom Youngs. Expect a big emotional performance from Leicester but in the cold light of day they don’t possess the pack of old and if the Wasps forwards achieve parity – which they should – their backs should have enough class and strike power to get the job done and possibly in some style.

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