BATH, ENGLAND – Though the modern rugby season is a long, grueling affair, more often than not it the season to come down to the final few weekends, where each action is amplified in the furnace of the playoff chase. The 2013-14 Aviva Premiership campaign has been no exception, with a home semifinal and the final playoff spot still up for grabs. Twice more this year, RugbyWrapUp will bring you a preview of all the Premiership’s action, so without further ado, we’ll delve into the match-ups.
Bath, Northampton Highlight Weekend Slate
The round gets off to a flying start when Bath and Northampton face off at The Rec on Friday night in a preview of the Amlin Cup Final. George North will miss the mammoth clash with Ken Pisi returning to the wing in his stead. Dylan Hartley is also missing, and many believe that it is no coincidence that Northampton’s season has taken a distinct turn for the worse without their controversial captain. On Bath’s side of the dressing room, all the talk will be of securing a massive victory before a final weekend showdown with Harlequins. Mike Ford’s team can retain control of their own destiny with a win. Anything else, and they will be playing in an elimination match next weekend away from home. Northampton has their own concerns, trying to wrap up an elusive home semi-final that looked assured as recently as early April. The fixture list has not been kind to the Saints, and with a match-up against East Midlands rivals Leicester looming, they will bring everything they have to bear against young George Ford. England is a little less than a month away from naming a touring squad to New Zealand, and Stuart Lancaster will be keeping a keen eye on this contest. Anthony Watson has fallen slightly off the pace after a sensational winter advanced his claims to a place in the England XV, but with Jack Nowell missing out on the tour, he may be next in line, pending Christian Wade and Marland Yarde’s health. This would be a great chance to secure a spot on the plane.
Sale Try to Put Pressure on Tigers
Sale are eight points off the playoff pace, but they could put some pressure on Harlequins and Leicester with a victory at Salford City Stadium on Saturday. Though a bonus point win is a big request, it would put them a mere three points behind Leicester, heaping pressure on a Tigers team that felt they had a playoff spot locked up before their loss last round to Harelquins. At this point, Danny Cipriani and Co. seem to be content to play the role of spoilers, but their sustained success over the course of the campaign has certainly been admirable. Cipriani is another man with a strong claim to a New Zealand berth, and this match would go a long way to assuaging doubts over his big-game capabilities. Leicester is finally coming out of one of the most injury-plagued campaigns of recent memory, with Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Miles Benjamin, and Niall Morris all returning to training. Benjamin had made a major impact before missing out on the past three months due to a knee injury, and he would add a potent attacking weapon to Richard Cockerill’s arsenal.
Best of the Rest
London Wasps will attempt to secure seventh place (and the vital European Champions Cup playoff position) in their match against Newcastle. The Falcons have faltered badly in 2014, and must end the season on some kind of high note if they are to avoid becoming early 2014-15 relegation favorites. The top and bottom side face one another when Saracens line up against Worcester at the Allianz. The Sarries’ strategy of resting their top players paid huge dividends when they smashed Clermont in record-breaking fashion. The team will be riding an unbelievable high, and it is difficult to see them coming away with anything but maximum points. Harlequins cannot afford to take Exeter lightly. Though the Chiefs have been disappointed with their results this term, Harlequins absolutely need a win to stay in the hunt for the final playoff position. They have been playing must-win matches for a month now, and saving their Amlin Cup defeat to Northampton, they have performed admirably. Gloucester is another team looking to end the season on a high note, after a bitter campaign. A team with genuine playoff aspirations entering the season has petered out into lower table mediocrity, while London Irish never rose above expectations. Both teams will be adding major reinforcements in the summer, but for this weekend, entertainment will likely be the goal. Look for an offensive gameplan from both teams, and tries will (hopefully) flow.
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