The domestic season comes to a close tomorrow with more than 130,000 fans expected to pack out Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium
By tomorrow evening, just a shade after 8pm, the 2016-17 domestic season will be a footnote, and we’ll know which clubs have been engraved into the history books. At Twickenham, 80,000 will pack out England’s home of rugby to see whether the Exeter Chiefs can lift their first Premiership trophy, after growing increasingly influential since their promotion in 2010, or whether Dai Young’s thrill-seekers, Wasps, can dance and dart their way to a first Premiership trophy in nearly a decade.
Over the Irish Sea, Munster, fuelled by an emotional tidal wave since the passing of Anthony Foley, will look to deprive the dangerous Scarlets backs of possession and lift the Pro12 at the Aviva Stadium as a fitting tribute. Anthony Pivac’s men may have other ideas, and the in-form West Walians feel a first title since the 2003-04 season is within their grasp.
Referee: JP Doyle
Kick-off: Twickenham, 2.30pm
Wasps scrum needs to hold firm to let backs fly
The Wasps set-piece has been on the wobbly side in recent weeks; the scrum struggled against Leicester and if Tommy Taylor’s darts waiver, it could be a long afternoon in the sun for Wasps. Their defence has also been on the porous side in recent months, conceding 30-plus points to Worcester Warriors, Harlequins and Northampton Saints, and despite an electric backline, they’ll know you cannot always be relied to outscore the opposition.
The loss of the electrifying Kurtley Beale is a damaging one for Wasps but to be able to call on a full-back of Willie Le Roux’s class is no hardship. If Joe Lauchbury‘s workrate can continue to make a mockery of his Lions omission and Thomas Young can find space in the wide channels to release Elliot Daly and Christian Daly on the vast Twickenham pitch, Dai Young’s men could yet lift their first Premiership final for nine years.
Chiefs momentum cannot be overstated…
The Chiefs broke a Premiership record at the end of the regular season, plundering eight consecutive try bonus points. Their thrilling last-minute win over Saracens meant it was 15 games without loss and it gave Sarries’ six starting Lions their first taste of defeat. The fact that Henry Slade, who executed one of the finest pressure touchfinders seen in recent years, cannot demand a starting spot gives you some indication of their strength-in-depth.
The Exeter pack gave Sarries a proper examination last weekend and if Geoff Parling can rule the skies and Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom, the collisions in the tight, it will give the platform for outstanding strike runners, Jack Nowell and Phil Dollman, the chance to prosper in broken-field play. The final will give Rob Baxter, and the watching public, the chance to see how much they’ve learnt from their first-half jitters against Saracens 12 months ago at Twickenham.
Wasps: Willie Le Roux; Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth, Josh Bassett; Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson; Matt Mullan, Tommy Taylor, Phil Swainston, Joe Launchbury (capt), Matt Symons, James Haskell, Thomas Young, Nathan Hughes
Replacements: Ashley Johnson, Simon McIntyre, Marty Moore, Kearnan Myall, Guy Thompson, Joe Simpson, Alapati Leiua, Frank Halai
Exeter Chiefs: Phil Dollman; Jack Nowell, Ian Whitten, Ollie Devoto, Olly Woodburn; Gareth Steenson (capt), Stuart Townsend; Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Williams, Dave Dennis, Geoff Parling, Kai Horstmann, Don Armand, Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Carl Rimmer, Tomas Francis, Mitch Lees, Sam Simmonds, Will Chudley, Henry Slade, Michele Campagnaro
Premiership Verdict: Exeter’s momentum and the power in the pack means a narrow victory for Rob Baxter’s men. Expect a high-scoring affair, 29-25 to the Chiefs
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Referee: Nigel Owens
Kick-off 6.15pm, Aviva Stadium
Munster need to play spoilsports
Munster are renowned for their dogged, attritional style of rugby and they may have to play a pragmatic, set-piece orientated game to nullify the multiple attacking threats of the West Walians. Munster were outmuscled by Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-finals, and seemed to lack a Plan B, but the Scarlets can’t boast the grunt of Mark McCall’s men, so Rassie Erasmus would be sensible to use leaders Donnacha Ryan – playing his last game for Munster – Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander to grind the Scarlets pack down with tenacity, raw power and hard-earned nous.
They showed against the Ospreys in the semi-finals that they could score aesthetically pleasing tries with a Simon Zebo special, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. If the pack can gain control, and start rumbling, Conor Murray will be able to start turning the screw and the Scarlets could wilt.
Scarlets need to play without fear
Despite being lauded at the start of the season, it took the much vaunted Scarlets backline a while to hit their straps but Wayne Pivac’s men, like Exeter, are on a roll, winning 17 out of their last 19 games, and in the last month, the gifted backs have clicked under the watchful eye of former Wales fly-half, Stephen Jones. Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams have started to punch their reputations in midfield, with Davies in particular showing his class with an outstanding display against Leinster in the semi-finals.
The Scarlets back three are playing with smiles on their faces, and in Steff Evans, they have a player who is popping up all over the park, hitting gaps and looking to offload. The guy on the other flank is British & Irish Lion, Liam Williams and as well as his natural attacking gifts, he showed his prowess with the boot last weekend. Up front, if Rob Evans, the bustling Ryan Elias and Tadgh Beirne can give them parity up front and James Davies can get to work on the deck, the boys from West Wales could well be singing Sospan Fach with their delirious fans on Saturday evening.
Pro12 verdict: Munster are clear favourites to lift the trophy but the in-form Scarlets could make it an Irish double, as their creative backs puncture the Munster defence. 24-22 to the Scarlets
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony (captain), Billy Holland, Donnacha Ryan, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Brian Scott, Stephen Archer, Jean Deysel, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Jaco Taute
Scarlets: Johnny McNicholl; Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Steffan Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; John Barclay (captain), James Davies, Aaron Shingler, Tadhg Beirne, Lewis Rawlins, Samson Lee, Ryan Elias, Rob Evans
Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Wyn Jones, Werner Kruger, David Bulbring, Will Boyde, Jonathan Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, DTH Van der Merwe