LONDON, ENGLAND – Two of the hottest teams in European rugby will run out on the pitch Friday for a massive encounter that will define their season. The stakes don’t get much higher for Leicester and Harlequins, each of whom is undefeated since the end of the Six Nations. Elsewhere in the league, Northampton are fighting for their playoff lives, Exeter and Sale battle for the playoff spot in next season’s European competition, and Worcester aren’t relegated quite yet. This week, as always, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with our Aviva Premiership round 20 preview.
Leicester try for home semi-final, Harlequins hoping to sneak in
Conor O’Shea’s side has staged a remarkable resurgence since the end of February, winning their last five consecutive home matches in convincing fashion. Last week, they blew Sale off the park in a 27-12 demolition, and their England contingent looks to be in full fitness ahead of their clash on Friday at the Stoop. Leicester are in an equally strong position, having put together one of their now-patented late-season runs. Commentators are suggesting that both sides are peaking at exactly the right time, given the relative struggles of both Northampton Saints and Bath. Manu Tuilangi has made a massive impact since returning from injury, crossing the try line four times, including twice last weekend. The Tigers have not lost in the Premiership for four months, but Quins are ideally placed to end that run. Both sides will be hugely motivated, which will hopefully lead to a great, offensive match. Ben Youngs, burning from losing the England No. 9 shirt, has something to prove, while Danny Care remains a dynamic creator, especially deadly from the quick-tap. Toby Flood will return to the starting line-up for Tigers following Owen Williams‘ extended and impressive run, for what may be one of his final matches in Leicester colors before a move to France.
Northampton Saints attempt to regain control of spiraling season.
Though Jim Mallinder claims that the Saints are secure in the dressing room, outside observers have been plenty to question in the wake of three successive league defeats. The East Midlands side once had a double digit cushion between themselves and third place; that has since shrunk to three points. The fixture list has been kind by providing the Irish, who have secured Premiership status for another season, but have failed to convince in matches against quality sides this year. The Irish have a miserable offensive record away from home, and have not scored a try away from the Madjeski since February 15. For now, the Saints hold a definite edge, but this match will be much tenser than it would have been a mere two weeks ago.
Exeter and Sale fight for sixth
The Chiefs and Sharks will battle at Sandy Park on Saturday, with all the pressure on Exeter. Sale sit nine points in front of the Chiefs, but Exeter are only one point ahead of London Wasps in the race for seventh. With the new format of the European Rugby Champions Cup, the seventh placed sides in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 will face one another in a playoff game, making the middle of the table an intriguing race. Danny Cipriani will be hoping to round out an impressive bounce-back campaign with yet another sterling performance. While he is still on the fringes of the international picture, an excellent final three matches would give Stuart Lancaster plenty to think about when selecting a squad to face New Zealand, particularly in the wake of George Ford’s recent domestic struggles.
Best of the Rest
Bath were handed what will likely be their easiest match of the season, facing the Worcester Warriors at the Rec on Saturday afternoon. The Warriors have made a point of keeping their matches interesting until the final minute, and there is the potential for a shock upset. Harlequins will keep a close eye, and Bath know any slip-up could allow the London team the opportunity to slide into the playoff spot. London Wasps will be facing Gloucester at Twickenham. While the Wasps have not had the same success as Saracens and Harlequins in promoting their “showpiece” event, the large stage should dramatize the proceedings. Gloucester are trying to recover some dignity in the wake of their embarassing defeat last week, marked by two red cards and subsequent suspensions for Tavis Knoyle and Sila Puafisi. Newcastle line up against Saracens for the final match of the weekend. The Sarries are attempting to secure a home semifinal with a victory, while Newcastle are still looking over their shoulder at the Warriors. The Falcons signed American prop Eric Fry over the past weekend, and have continued to rearm as though preparing for another season in the Premiership. Dean Ryan’s team have work to do if they hope to make another run in 2014-15, and avoiding a double digit loss at Kingston Park would be a sign of progress.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us onTwitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann,Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.