It’s taken a while but the Gallagher Premiership is finally reaching boiling point this weekend and we could have a two-tier league at the end of it. The neutrals will be hoping for wins for Harlequins and Gloucester in order to ensure the Premiership remains as close and fiercely competitive as it has been in recent times.

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However, a gap has already opened up and the bottom half of the league could be cut adrift if those two don’t come out on top in round 17.

That would not be good for anyone. The race for the top six is normally one of the main points of interest in the run-in to the end of the season, but interest could yet be maintained if it is decided that more teams will be involved in the Heineken Champions Cup next season.

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England forward Courtney Lawes guests on All Access, the RugbyPass interview series hosted by Jim Hamilton

The quality of Gallagher Premiership rugby has inevitably been hit and miss since the restart and it isn’t easy for players after such a long break, but they all seem to have got used to how the breakdown is being refereed and there can be no excuses about not being up to speed now.

There have been three rounds since the 2019/20 campaign got up and running again and all teams are currently in the midst of a run of six games in just 24 days. That isn’t great for player welfare but it means the Premiership table is taking shape very quickly.

Harlequins vs Northampton and Bath vs Wasps are the picks of this latest round, with Sale vs Bristol going the way of quite a few others in recent weeks after seeing the team news. You can expect a home win in that one. Paul Gustard described Harlequins’ performance against Worcester as “embarrassing” and it feels season-defining for them this weekend. It looks a way off at the moment but they need to win to keep the top four dream alive.

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Aside from the top two of Exeter and Bristol, who are impressing everyone at the moment, Bath and Wasps have been the form sides since the restart and they lock horns on Monday afternoon – arguably, the best game of the weekend has been saved until last.

Bath have won all of their last three games and a squad that has always looked good on paper is now showing their quality on the pitch. Again, much will depend on team selection in terms of determining the outcome of that one so we will have to wait until Sunday’s announcements to see if the fixture will live up to its billing.

There have been blowouts with first teams facing youths XVs over the course of the past couple of weeks. That is unavoidable but this period is the ultimate test of squad strength.

One team that has really disappointed since the restart have been Saints. They looked like top four material all season long but with games against Exeter and Bristol in the next two rounds after this one, their play-off place could be slipping between their fingers.

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With Saracens already relegated after the salary cap scandal, it has ensured there won’t be any intrigue at the foot of the table. Without relegation there will be a host of unwanted dead rubbers at the tail-end of the campaign so this weekend feels big in terms of keeping interest alive.

The play-off places look to be going to four of the current top six and there may not be much suspense involved in the race for Champions Cup spots depending on what format is decided.

You would expect Gloucester to beat Leicester at home but the pressure is on them and Harlequins, in particular, to prove they have what it takes to mix it with the top six this weekend and make sure the final five rounds of the Gallagher Premiership are as interesting as we have come to expect.

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