With just five rounds to go in the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership regular season, the battle to avoid relegation took some interesting twists and turns in Round 17.
Leicester Tigers got the ball rolling on Friday evening, hosting Northampton Saints in a game that is one of, if not the most anticipated derby in club rugby, with hopes of using that home advantage to grab some points and propel themselves away from the teams at the bottom of the competition. Unfortunately for Tigers, Chris Boyd’s men were more than up for the challenge and left Welford Road with a 29-15 victory.
Worcester Warriors then added to the intrigue by beating Bristol Bears, 27-25, at Ashton Gate, both improving their own chances of survival, as well as dragging Bristol back into the relegation scuffle, after it had looked as if the promoted side had begun to distance themselves from the battle to avoid 12th.
The bottom four was rounded out by Newcastle Falcons on Saturday evening, as the side from the north-east beat Sale Sharks, 22-17, at St James’ Park, bringing them to within one game of both Worcester and Leicester, albeit still at the bottom of the table.
With a maximum of 25 points up for grabs in those five rounds still to come, anything is possible at the bottom of the table, but realistically the sides involved are going to be looking at totals of much less than that in the season’s run-in. These are how the schedules of each of the sides in the mix look over the coming rounds.
Bristol Bears, 36 points – Bath (a), Saracens (h), Leicester Tigers (a), Sale Sharks (h), Newcastle Falcons (a).
Leicester Tigers, 34 points – Exeter Chiefs (h), Newcastle Falcons (a), Bristol Bears (h), Harlequins (a), Bath (h).
Worcester Warriors, 32 points – Wasps (a), Sale Sharks (h), Gloucester (h), Northampton Saints (a), Saracens (h).
Newcastle Falcons, 29 points – Saracens (a), Leicester Tigers (h), Northampton Saints (h), Gloucester (a), Bristol Bears (h).
It is not out of the question that the trio of Wasps (37 points), Bath (39 points) and Sale (40 points) could also be dragged into the mix, albeit Bath have a game in hand which they will play on Sunday against Exeter.
Bristol are the only one of the four sides in the quagmire at the bottom with more away games than home ones to finish the season, but they do enjoy the points advantage at the moment, as well as two of those away games coming against sides in the bottom four, which may well encourage them that a result is certainly possible. Conversely, it could be argued that those two fixtures offer eight-point swings at the bottom and the home advantages on those occasions will be with both Leicester and Newcastle.
Tigers’ situation has quickly worsened in the recent rounds and it’s difficult to see them getting too much out of their fixtures with Exeter and Harlequins, with those fixtures sandwiching pivotal games against both Newcastle and Bristol. Conservatively, you would say they need at least two wins from the final five and Bristol and Bath at Welford Road could be those targeted, although a win at Kingston Park in Round 19 would go a long way to easing worries in the East Midlands.
Worcester have arguably the toughest schedule to see out the season. They face none of the other sides in the bottom four and both Gloucester and Saracens will arrive at Sixways as favourites. Neither Wasps nor Northampton have been the most consistent of sides this season, but they will both enjoy home advantage against Warriors. Worcester’s home fixture against Sale is likely the only one of their remaining five where they will be seen as favourites by the bookies.
Combined with Worcester’s challenging end to the season, the fact Newcastle host two of their relegation rivals in Leicester and Bristol, as well as Northampton, who have been susceptible on the road, breathes fresh life into their survival hopes. Trips to Kingsholm and Allianz Park have the potential to be fruitless, but Dean Richard’s side could be looking at 12+ points from their final home fixtures.
It is without doubt one of the most compelling contests at the bottom of the table that the competition has seen and for a side as storied and well-supported as Leicester to be in the mix only adds to the unique spectacle of it.
Tigers are far from safe and if they turn in five more performances like the one they showed against Northampton on Friday night, it could well be the 10-times champions of England who ultimately face the drop, but it’s tough to look too far beyond Worcester at this point, who despite their crucial win over Bristol in Round 18, have the most testing run in of all four clubs.
Newcastle’s three wins on the bounce in the Premiership has them full of momentum, too, and their upward trajectory has only added to the compelling nature of the contest, where Leicester need energy fast, Worcester need to upset the odds and Bristol just need to be careful and not let their current advantage slip.
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