NEW YORK, NY – It would be remiss of me to open an article focused on English Premiership rugby without firstly offering thoughts and best wishes to the Youngs family. Over the weekend, Leicester and England scrum half Ben Youngs very understandably withdrew from the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand on learning that the wife of his older brother and Leicester teammate Tom Youngs, is terminally ill with cancer. Such tragic news is a reminder that, as much as we love the sport of rugby, there are other things which are more important. Life must be kept in perspective; rugby will always be there, but sadly the same cannot be said of family. The Youngs family are in the thoughts of the entire rugby world and we all wish them the best.
After 21 matches and eight months of competition, there was still a lot to play for in a gripping final round of Avivia Premiership games last Saturday. Three teams were fighting to finish top of the table in the regular season, another two were battling it out to finish fourth and clinch the final playoff spot, while another two were competing for the all-important sixth place in the league which would secure them European Champions Cup rugby next season.
In perhaps the most anticipated game of the weekend, top of the table Wasps hosted third placed Saracens in Coventry. Wasps, who have been top of the Premiership since Christmas Eve, have been scintillating in attack all season, while Saracens have been hitting their best form over the past couple of months just as the business end of the season arrives. Somewhat controversially, Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall rested some of the team’s regular starters with a view to protecting them ahead of next Saturday’s Champions Cup final in Edinburgh. This despite facing a Wasps side which has not lost at home all season, and knowing that defeat would mean an away playoff semifinal against Exeter, McCall’s decision was questioned by some. Of the 20 semi finals which have been played since the premiership switched to a playoff format, 15 have been won by home sides. However, of the five victories by away teams, two have belonged to Saracens. Having proven themselves away from home with huge wins at Toulon and Munster in the Champions Cup already this season, McCall wasn’t daunted by the prospect of travelling for a semi final, and chose to put faith in the depth of his squad.
As it played out, Wasps looked the sharper side all match, forcing Saracens into uncharacteristic mistakes in both attack and defence. Wasps’ play-making axis of Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Gopperth and Kurtley Beale spread the visitor’s defensive line, creating gaps for their explosive strike runners, and the home side ran out deserved 35-15 winners. In doing so, Wasps took their total number of ties this season to 89, breaking the Premiership record which had stood since 1998. Also worthy of mention was Christian Wade’s 17th try of the season, which equaled the Premiership record set by Dominic Chapman 20 years ago. These two stats highlight the attacking prowess which Wasps have displayed all season, with Wade in particularly stunning form.
However, the chink in the armour of this Wasps side has been their defensive fallibility; having conceded 502 points this season, Wasps have only the seventh best defence in the Premiership. In tense, tight playoff semi finals and finals where they may not be willing or able to play their typical free-flowing style of rugby, their defence will need to improve markedly if they are to be victorious.
Second-placed Exeter traveled to Gloucester where, in spite of being down 15-13 at half time, they prevailed 34-20 to win their eighth consecutive try bonus point. Exeter are a side not overflowing with superstars, but who play with cohesion to produce performances greater than the sum of their individual parts. They will now welcome Saracens in two weeks time for a home semi-final as they continue in search of their first Premiership final.
Rounding out the top four, traditional Premiership heavyweights Leicester sealed their place in the playoffs for the thirteenth successive season with victory at Worcester. Leicester are the Premiership’s most successful team ever, having won the competition ten times in their history, including in four consecutive seasons from 1999 to 2002. However, their last title came in 2013, and patience has been wearing thin at the club; in January of this year they fired Leicester legend and seven year director of rugby Richard Cockerill, who was replaced on an interim basis by player-favourite and former All Black Aaron Mauger, who in turn was relieved of his duties in March to be replaced on a permanent basis by Matt O’Connor. The instability off the field has doubtless been a distraction to a squad which has also seen key players suffer long term injuries this season, however with a spot in the playoffs secure, Leicester will feel they have a squad which, at its best, can beat anyone.
In the weekend’s other games of note, Bath fell 27-24 away to Sale, ending their hopes of making the Premiership playoffs, and Harlequins clinched the final qualifying spot for next season’s Champions Cup in spite of losing 22-20 at Northampton. Both Bath and Northampton will be disappointed with their efforts this year; they are two established clubs with rich histories in English rugby and some big name players in their squads.
So… we are left with Wasps hosting Leicester and Saracens traveling to Exeter on 20th May for the right to play in the Premiership final at Twickenham the following week.
-Can Leicester exploit the defensive frailties of the regular season champions to spring a surprise victory?
-Will Wasps’ attacking might prove too great?
-Will Exeter’s team orientated approach continue to deliver victory or will the reigning Premiership champions have too much firepower?
I, for one, cannot wait to find out!
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