As a fascinating Aviva Premiership season reaches its final straight and a sprint to the finish, six teams are in with a chance of winning the title. We take a look at the contenders.
Intrigue, excitement, outrage, indignation – the current domestic campaign in this country has encouraged just about every emotional reaction from a captive audience.
With three regular season rounds to go, six teams remain in the hunt for top Aviva Premiership honours. The race to make the play-offs amounts to an extremely claustrophobic traffic jam.
While we can then, why no take stock of the teams, their remaining games and pivotal personnel?
Current position: 1st, 67 points
Final three league matches: Saracens (A), London Welsh (H), Leicester (A)
Rampaging form in the early part of this term has earned the reigning champions a deserved six-point cushion. Still, there are nagging concerns for their trophy defence. Jim Mallinder’s men have suffered comprehensive defeats in succession to Clermont Auvergne and Exeter. George North’s concussion worries continue, the England contingent seem slightly tired and their set-piece – Alex Corbisiero and all – was destroyed at Sandy Park. They have an excruciatingly tough run-in too. They should still reach Twickenham, but silverware will depend on whether the likes of Courtney Lawes and undervalued Salesi’i Ma’afu can rouse this stumbling giant.
Key player: Samu Manoa – a hard-hitting gain-line bully intent on a grand send-off to Toulon.
Current position: 2nd, 61 points
Final three league matches: Northampton (A), Exeter (H), London Welsh (A)
They may have seen their European dreams dashed for another season in Saint-Étienne, but Saracens are in decent shape. An archetypal performance against Leicester a fortnight ago showcased relentless tenacity in defence alongside razor-sharp execution. Even if the Clermont machine won out, plenty of Mark McCall’s side look in good touch. Out wide, Marcelo Bosch, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton are firing. Up front, Maro Itoje is poised to add energy and dynamism. Do not underestimate the morale-boost generated by a heap of contract renewals, either. Tomorrow’s re-run of last year’s final will hold no fear whatsoever.
Key player: Brad Barritt – a lynchpin in terms of defensive organisation and so courageous.
Current position: 3rd, 61 points
Final three league matches: London Irish (H), Harlequins (A), Gloucester (H)
Mike Ford needs to be ruthless here, because a return of at least 14 points and a home semi-final should be Bath’s goal. With the pitches firming up, their phalanx of classy backs – Six Nations stars George Ford and Jonathan Joseph leading the charge – can truly damage teams. Media circus aside, Sam Burgess could start to influence given a run of games in the number six jersey. Without disrespecting the Exiles, Harlequins and Gloucester, a trio of games against opponents with little to play for (and the sturdy safety net of Carl Fearns waiting in the wings) feels like a prime scenario in which to learn before the knockout stages begin.
Key player: George Ford – the conductor of Bath’s incisive midfield who will also have so high-pressure kicking to do.
Current position: 4th, 58 points
Final three league matches: Wasps (A), Saracens (A), Sale (H)
Attaching the adjective ‘plucky’ to Exeter should have been outlawed a long time ago. Rob Baxter’s Devon boys survived on winning promotion in 2010 – a seminal campaign for the club. This season, an equally important one, is when they began to really thrive. The bristling power of Dave Ewers and 13-try Thomas Waldrom forms a potent blend in the back row, while Henry Slade has become a consummate operator at fly-half. Jack Nowell adds the predatory instinct while outstanding tighthead Tomas Francis – slayer of the much-vaunted Saints scrum recently – is likely to fuel a tug-of-war between Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster. Sunday in Coventry will be thoroughly entertaining. Prevail, and Chiefs can sneak a top four finish.
Key player: Dave Ewers – a force of nature. Arguably the best player in the league yet to win full international honours. He is that good.
Position: 5th, 55 points
Final three league matches: London Welsh (H), Wasps (A), Northampton (H)
Tigers centre Matt Smith hit the nail on the head this week. “We’ve got guys that have won two or three Premierships,” he said. “We know what it takes.” Whatever their failings this year – and with a try tally stuck at 26, superior only to that of relegated London Welsh, it is fair to suggest there have been a few – Leicester are ominously comfortable when squeaky bum time arrives. Only Tom Wood’s last-gasp score 12 months ago prevented a tenth straight decider, remember. Welsh at Welford Road represents a cast-iron five-pointer this weekend before what are effectively two Midlands derbies – occasions the likes of Dan Cole and the Youngs brothers live for. Stranger things have happened.
Key player: Ben Youngs – dictates pace and tempo on the front foot, scraps like hell on the back foot.
Position: 6th, 53 points
Final three league matches: Exeter (H), Leicester (H), London Irish (A)
All roads lead to the Ricoh Arena for a face-off between two of this competition’s most enterprising, refreshing outfits. Indeed, the hosts begin the imminent round of fixtures as the most prolific try-scorers in the land with 69. Electric pace has been their primary weapon, Christian Wade, Joe Simpson and Bristol-bound Tom Varndell key protagonists. Add in the dexterity and ambition of Elliot Daly – currently operating on an entirely different level from mere mortals in the division – and you have a fleet of threats. Dai Young’s pack, suspension-free Nathan Hughes and Oreo back row buddies James Haskell and Ashley Johnson included, is a force to be reckoned with as well. Neck healed, Joe Launchbury comes back to take on Tigers. That coup will bring the same feel-good factor as a world-class signing. Overturn Exeter and all bets are off.
Key player: Nathan Hughes – dominant and domineering, he will be unleashed again following the farcical disciplinary fall-out that caused him to miss the Champions Cup quarter-final.