As the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership regular season winds down this weekend with the 22nd and last round of league play, there is still plenty to play for in England’s top tier.
The congested nature of the table outside of the top three this season has only added to the drama of the competition and it has left a number of unanswered questions going into the final six fixtures on Saturday.
The hunt for fourth and the final play-off place rages on, with Northampton Saints currently in pole position, sitting in fourth with 56 points, while Harlequins are hot on their heels in fifth with 55 points. Bath are within five points of Northampton, but due to their smaller number of wins, there is no mathematical way they can leapfrog both Saints and Quins into the coveted play-off spot.
Northampton go into Saturday safe in the knowledge that a win, no matter Quins’ result, would be enough to see them return to the play-offs. That said, their final match of the season is away at Exeter Chiefs, an unenviable task at the best of times. Quins will be hoping Exeter can do them a favour by denying Saints any points, while they head to the Ricoh Arena to take on Wasps.
Again, the intrigue is ramped up at this point, as Wasps are chasing maximum points themselves, with the side from the West Midlands currently sitting in eighth and out of the Heineken Champions Cup qualification spots. They are currently three points behind Sale Sharks and four points behind Bath, and only a full five-point win and a pointless outing for Bath will guarantee them a spot in Europe’s premier competition, thanks to Sale’s status as a losing Challenge Cup semi-finalist via EPCR’s qualification criteria.
Europe ? ? #GallagherPrem
It's tight at the top, middle & just about everywhere else ahead of Round 22?
Who are you backing for the following?
Top spot ……………..
Fourth place ……………….
Top six ……………………….
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) May 13, 2019
Wasps’ hopes of Bath picking up nothing from the final round are diminished by the West Country side’s opponents, Leicester Tigers, who are enduring their worst season in the professional era.
Bath head to Welford Road for their final fixture of the season in an iconic clash that has, in all honesty, lacked a bit of lustre in recent seasons. From Bath’s perspective, a minimum of two points would be enough to secure them Champions Cup rugby, thanks to Saracens winning the competition this year and opening the door for seven sides to represent the Premiership next season.
Sale wrap up their season at home to Gloucester, who are one of just two sides with no chance of moving up or down the table on the final day, while Bristol Bears are the only other team with a shot at Champions Cup spots. Bristol, like Wasps, face a situation of needing the teams above them not to pick up points, and for them to take a full five-point haul from their trip to Newcastle Falcons. Outside of the current top four, only Harlequins’ spot in the Champions Cup next season is secure through league position.
Those two battles account for half of the 12 teams in the league, but what about the other six clubs? At the top, Exeter can be caught by Saracens, although with both having secured home semi-finals, it’s not the dogfight that the contests for fourth through to seventh are.
That said, Exeter were out of action last week having not made it to the European finals, and the week prior to that they opted for a heavily rotated side in their loss away to Saracens. That’s two weeks away from top-flight rugby for many of Exeter’s usual starters and it’s highly likely they will use this weekend’s fixture against Northampton as a way of making sure they are match-fit and to blow away any potential cobwebs that have built up.
Gloucester are in a similar situation, having not played last weekend, and now need to ensure they have momentum and consistency going into the semi-finals. Although there will be no tangible benefits to their game against Sale in terms of league position or seeding, they will not want to risk being rusty going into their semi-final, which looks as if it will be at Allianz Park, taking on Saracens.
? Even as we approach the final round the top 6?? remains partially unresolved ?
Excruciatingly close right up to the end ??
Inconsistency? Or are all the sides too well-matched in the #GallagherPrem?
Regardless, it's been a whole lot of fun to watch ? pic.twitter.com/5IzmmChhzw
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) May 16, 2019
That leaves four teams – Saracens, Worcester Warriors, Leicester and Newcastle – with little to play for, but important opportunities, nonetheless.
Saracens could chase first overall and hope that Northampton pull off an against the odds win over Exeter, or, more likely, they will rest their Champions Cup heroes this weekend so that they are fresh for a home semi-final and give their larger squad a chance to put down a marker for next season, if not the upcoming playoffs.
The likes of Joel Kpoku, Manu Vunipola, Andy Christie, Tadgh McElroy, Rotimi Segun and Dom Morris were front and centre for Saracens Storm on Monday night, as they lifted the Premiership Shield trophy with a 55-14 victory over Newcastle Falcons. A number of the players in that side performed well in the round 21 win over Exeter and could be called on heavily at the start of the 2019/20 season, which will be impacted by the Rugby World Cup.
Having beaten a rotated Exeter side in the Premiership and blown away Northampton and Newcastle in the Shield play-offs, a test for these players against a strong Worcester side in the Premiership would be an insightful gauge of where they are in their development.
Worcester also don’t have a lot left to play for, having secured their Premiership future in round 21, but a win over Saracens would be a morale-boosting way to end the season and build some momentum heading into the next campaign.
An opportunity for Worcester Cavaliers stand-out and former England under-20 Will Butler wouldn’t go amiss for Alan Solomons’ side, especially with Ollie Lawrence ruled out with injury, while current England under-20s Kai Owen and James Scott could also benefit from the playing time and lay down their own markers for further involvement next season.
As for Leicester, the carrot of trying to finish tenth rather than 11th probably appeals in what has been a historically bad season, but the value of bringing through some of the club’s emerging talent, rather than chasing a solitary win, could prove more beneficial in the long run.
Full-back Freddie Steward has already been given a taste of Premiership and Premiership Shield rugby, having helped Tigers to two titles and two undefeated seasons at under-18 level, whilst scrum-half Jonny Law is another under-18 who has shown he is ready for a further taste of senior rugby already. Senior academy members Henri Lavin, Cameron Jordan and Tommy Reffell could also use the fixture as a valuable springboard to more involvement next season.
Finally, we come to relegated side Newcastle. There is a compelling case that they owe it to their fans to put out as strong a team as possible and reward them for their loyalty over the course of a tough season for the club. Furthermore, a number of senior players will be saying goodbye to their team-mates and the fans and deserve to go out in a fashion that befits their service to the club.
If they can find opportunities for the likes of Josh Hodge, Simon Uzokwe, Tom Marshall or any of their other impressive Shield performers this season, though, it’s only going to help kickstart their Greene King IPA Championship campaign.
Given the runaway title chases and two-horse relegation races of recent seasons, with so much still left to play for on the final day, even with home semi-finals booked and relegation dealt with, Saturday promises to be an enjoyable day of rugby for fans up and down the country.
WATCH: Part five of The Academy, the RugbyPass documentary series on the Leicester Tigers
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