LEICESTER, ENGLAND – For three clubs, this weekend is make or break. Leicester, Exeter, and Saracens all enter the fray with nothing guaranteed, and only a point separating the sides. Both Exeter and Saracens sit on 63 points, while Leicester, by virtue of their victory over Wasps at the Ricoh last weekend, have 64. However, the Tigers have the toughest assignment by far, returning to Welford Road to battle their East Midlands rivals. Exeter face off against Sale, while Saracens have only token opposition in London Welsh. For the last time this season, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with all you need to know about the Aviva Premiership weekend.
Leicester vs. Northampton
In any week, this would be the pick of the round. With a club-defining streak on the line, it may be the most hotly anticipated derby ever. Leicester have made the playoffs in each of the past ten seasons, while Northampton were relegated to the Championship as recently as 2008. However, the Saints gained the upper hand last year, defeating their mortal enemies en route to an Aviva Premiership crown. With a home semi-final wrapped up, Northampton are resting some of their stars, including Samu Manoa and Stephen Myler, while Dylan Hartley will only appear off the bench. Richard Cockerill has kept the side largely unchanged from last weekend’s triumph. Brad Thorn will pair with Graham Kitchener in the second row. Ed Slater makes a crucial re-appearance after a season out due to injury. Thorn, a legend in both league and union, will be retiring this year after more than 20 seasons in the game. He has been vocal about wanting to retire with a title. To do so, Leicester realistically have to collect a try-scoring bonus point. Freddie Burns had some worryingly shaky kicks last weekend, after making massive strides in accuracy during the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see if Leicester go for the corners early, or attempt to cement a lead. Northampton could easily throw a monkey wrench in that plan by simply defeating their neighbors. It all makes for an exceptionally compelling encounter, and if this match lives up to the Tigers’ fight against Wasps, fans will be in for a day of the attacking rugby which eluded the Tigers for so long this year.
Exeter vs. Sale
Sale were making a playoff push for a long time, but faded off the chasing pack in recent weeks. In contrast, Exeter kept their season alive with a barnstorming win against Saracens last weekend, powered by rejuvenated number 8, Thomas Waldrom. Waldrom’s move for regular playing time has paid off spectacularly, and he tops the Premiership’s try scoring charts with 16. Rob Baxter is understandably employing an all hands on deck approach with the club’s potential first playoff appearance on the line. The Chiefs have a potent back line, featuring England stand-out Jack Nowell and potential World Cup call-up Henry Slade. Gareth Steenson is a very capable game manager, and Sale will have their hands full while on defense. Danny Cipriani had a solid campaign, but never quite reached the heights of 2013-14 which saw him re-enter England’s orbit. Mark Cueto will bid the Premiership farewall after this weekend. The Premiership’s all-time leading try scorer says goodbye after a career in Sale’s colors, but will do so away from home. He has been a part of Sharks since 2001, and will be given an appreciative send-off. Exeter need a Leicester loss to stand a chance of moving on. The Premiership’s arcane system means that the first tie-breaker is win total. The Tigers currently stand on 14 victories, while Exeter only have 13. The Chiefs have already had the best season in club history, but they are desperate to cap it all off with what would be an astonishing playoff appearance.
Saracens vs. London Welsh
Saracens and Exeter both have 13 wins moving into the final weekend, and could be dueling for fourth place based on point differential if Leicester stands victorious at home. They are at a razor-thin margin at the moment, with Exeter holding a + 3 advantage heading into Saturday’s matches. However, the schedule makers were kind to Saracens, handing them a match against the unquestioned worst side in Premiership history, London Welsh. It is worth going over the Exiles eye-watering stats just once more, since it is likely that we will never see a failure this spectacular again. The Welsh have been outscored by 747 points over 21 matches, for an average of 35 points per match. Their opponents have scored 953 points thus far, a figure that may move to quadruple digits by the end of Saturday. They have one try-scoring bonus point, but no losing bonuses and no victories, leaving them with a solitary point at the end of the year. Saracens, after flying out of the gate at the start of the season, have been made to sweat at the tail end of the year. However, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where they do not come away with 5 points and a massive point differential, which would effectively hand them an away semi-final. If Leicester win, Saracens would likely move on the face Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, while an Exeter victory would allow them to travel to the Recreation Ground. Though Mark McCall has kept up the usual pre-match rhetoric, he must be privately thanking his lucky stars that his team get to wrap up with the league’s easiest assignment.