THE STOOP, LONDON – Everything has led up to this, the final weekend of the Aviva Premiership season. While many teams have little to play for, Harlequins and Bath will start the playoffs a week early with a play-in match at The Stoop. Elsewhere, there remains some intrigue, as Northampton attempts to secure a home semi-final, while Leicester attempts to crash their party. For the final time this season, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with a full weekend preview.
Bath and Harlequins Headline
There’s absolutely no question where most eyes will be turned this weekend, with Harlequins and Bath facing off for a spot in the playoffs. Some permutations do exist that allow Bath to enter the playoffs even if they lose, so Harlequins will try to run up their margin of victory, while Bath try to hang onto a spot they have possessed all season. George Ford faces the biggest match of his young career against the infinitely experience Nick Evans, and the kicking duel could prove crucial to both teams’ hopes. Harlequins probably have the advantage in the forward pack, while Bath’s centers are more explosive. Quins have won their last five home matches, so the form guide is strongly in their favor. However, Bath’s away form is almost as strong. They have not fallen away from home since December 28, a span of more than four months. Bath have desperation on their side. While Quins were crowned champions two seasons ago, the West Country side have not tasted playoff glory since 2010, and it has been even longer since they have had the privilege of playing in a final. It seems likely that the winner of this match will have a difficult time facing Saracens at the Allianz, but as Northampton proved last year, anything can happen in the playoffs.
Leicester Face Sarries in Possible Final Preview
The Tigers will line up against the Saracens at Welford Road on Saturday. This will be the first major test of Leicester’s title credentials since their defeat away from home to Clermont. However, Richard Cockerill’s side have made a specialty out of underachieving in Europe, only to triumph on home soil. Sarries will have to maintain their high standards, and it is easy to imagine that they would let their minds wander with a European final in the offing. Realistically, the Tigers need another bonus point victory to place pressure on the Northampton Saints in second place. However, given their recent run of strong success, the Tigers have to be relatively confident heading into this match and then the playoffs. A big loss could derail months of momentum, and place the title firmly in Saracens’ grasp.
Northampton Try to Hang On
The fixture list was kind to the Saints, granting them a matchup against London Wasps at home in the final round of the season. Realistically, the Saints should have no problem dispatching the seventh place Wasps, who have secured a playoff against Stade Francais. Though the London team had realistic ambitions of challenging for the playoffs before the season started, a rash of inopportune injuries robbed Dai Young of the opportunity to truly compete. Nothampton’s new signings jelled more quickly than expected, but have regressed significantly in the past two months. Recently, there have been signs of a revival, but a bonus-point victory to end the season would do wonders for the team’s confidence, especially with stalwarts like Alex Corbesiero and Dylan Hartley approaching return from injury.
Best of the Rest
Worcester face reality as the relegated side, with one final home match in the Premiership looming against Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites have their own demons to confront. Countless times this season, we have written about the disappointment faced by Billy Twelvetrees and company. Twelvetrees is now missing with injury, and Gloucester are trying to make it into the offseason safely. London Irish will identify with that predicament. Another year on the fringes will conclude against Sale, who can at least take comfort in their European place next season. This will represent a final chance for Danny Cipriani to stake a claim in the England side, so look for the Sharks to play with some extra vigor for their fly-half. Newcastle will end the year with a match against Exeter, who are another side that hoped for better things. The Falcons will be odds-on favorites for relegation next year unless they can collect something from their final game of the season.
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