Round 22 is the final installment of this season’s Guinness Premiership before we enter into the top of the table play-offs.
* Leicester have already secured home semi-final and Worcester’s relegation was confirmed in the last round.
* But who will grab the other home semi-final? Will it be Jim Mallinder’s Northampton or Brendan Venter’s resurgent Sarries?
* Which team will complete the top four to book a trip to Welford Road? Bath, Wasps and London Irish are still in with a semi-final shout.
* And can Gloucester keep hold of 7th spot to keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive? Gloucester will qualify for the Heineken as the 24th team if Toulon beat in Amlin Challenge Cup Final. If Cardiff win then the Scarlets will be the 24th team.
Here are my previews and predictions:
Leicester Tigers v Saracens
Could this be a dress rehearsal for the Guinness Premiership Final on May 29th?
Leicester have already secured top spot in the Guinness Premiership and this is their sixth successive season in the playoffs. Title rivals Saracens need a win from this game to stand any chance of grabbing the other home semi-final. A win would also crush the Tigers’ attempts to go through an entire Premiership campaign unbeaten at home for the fifth time.
The history books show that Leicester have won their last four games against Sarries, whilst Brendan Venter’s men have never won at Welford Road in 32 previous visits in all competitions.
But Sarries have already won five games on the road this season, including their last two trips, to Sale and Northampton.
My prediction: A real top of the table clash which will go some way to showing who could be crowned champions. If Sarries give the ball to hooker Schalk Brits then anything is possible, but I think Leicester will just about have the edge. Leicester to win by 6.
London Irish v Northampton Saints
London Irish’s form seems to be slipping away from them at the crucial time. Losses to Gloucester and Leeds in the last two rounds all but ended their quest for a playoff place, but a win against Northampton would give them a chance – depending on other results.
The Saints will be gunning for a win after they also suffered back to back defeats which put a home semi-final under threat. A win over Irish would ensure the playoff game will be played at Franklins Gardens – a loss leaves them hoping Leicester do them a favour.
As for the history books, the Saints have won three of their last four meetings with London Irish, but have lost on their last three visits to Madejski Stadium.
My prediction: Who wants the win more? It’s got to be Northampton. Irish looked tired in their last two defeats whilst the Saints were pipped by a single point on each occasion. Northampton to win by 9.
Bath Rugby v Leeds Carnegie
If Bath beat Leeds they will grab the last play-off place and secure a semi-final trip to Welford Road to take on Leicester Tigers.
But if Neil Back’s Leeds can pull a third consecutive win out of the locker then Steve Meehan’s men will be left to sweat on other results.
Bath are the form team and have won 10 of their last 11 Guinness Premiership matches. Not bad for a side that was languishing in 11th place in the table at the halfway point of the season.
Carnegie’s Premiership survival was secured with their win over Worcester Warriors so they have nothing to lose at the Rec.
However, I can’t see the visitors taking any points from this game against the red hot Bath.
My prediction: With Butch James and Olly Barkley firing in the Bath backline, the home side will shift the point of attack and stretch Leeds to breaking point. Bath to win by 16.
Harlequins v Sale Sharks
Sale have won on their last four meetings in all competitions with Harlequins since the Sharks won this fixture 38-20 last season.
Quins are currently 8th table and have lost their last two league games at the hands of semi-finalists Saracens and Leicester.
But Harlequins are unbeaten in their last seven Premiership matches at the Stoop, since Sarries won there in September.
Sale, on the other hand, retained their Guinness Premiership status despite losing their last three league games. The Sharks’ only away victory in the Premiership since January 2009 was at Leeds in November 2009.
My prediction: Changes are being made at Edgeley Park but it’s too late for a Sale renaissance this season. Harlequins to win by 9.
Newcastle Falcons v London Wasps
Mathematically speaking, Wasps can still clinch the final play-off spot if they beat the Falcons.
However, when people start getting out their calculators to see if a team can make it you know they are unlikely to progress.
When Newcastle faced Wasps at Adams Park in the league on 3 January they beat them 12-6, and if a semi-final isn’t enough an incentive for Wasps to win then revenge certainly is.
I’ve got to admit that a win for the visitors looks likely, as Newcastle’s only victory in their last six games home games was the 25-23 win over Gloucester in the Premiership on 31 March.
My prediction: Even if Wasps ace their Maths exam and get through to the playoffs, I can’t see them making it to the final. But Shaun Edwards will be working the old cliché of one game at a time, and that should win them this game. Wasps to win by 12.
Worcester Warriors v Gloucester Rugby
Worcester’s swansong in the Premiership following their relegation at Leeds in the last round is by no means a dead rubber.
The Warriors will be playing for pride in front of their home fans and Gloucester need a win to ensure 7th place – a position that could see them included in next year’s Heineken Cup if Toulon win the Amlin Challenge Cup this season.
Worcester achieved the Premiership double over Gloucester last season, but drew 13-all when the two teams met at Kingsholm in round 12.
My prediction: Gloucester will have too much for the Warriors. Gloucester to win by 12.