Kit Shepard has the lowdown on the battle to reach the top four

Premiership play-offs race: How it stands with eight rounds to go

This season’s race for the Gallagher Premiership play-offs is one of the most exciting in recent memory.

While Leicester Tigers are the league’s runaway leaders, the next eight teams are separated by just 12 points and the scrap to finish in the top four over the final eight rounds of the season is sure to be full of twists and turns.

For the remainder of the season, each round of matches includes multiple games where play-off rivals meet and with the Six Nations in a fallow week, there is no better time to get up to speed with the state of play domestically.

Here is your team-by-team lowdown to the Premiership play-offs race.

The front-runner

Leicester Tigers (1st, 70 points)

Season so far: Steve Borthwick’s Leicester machine just keeps bulldozing on. They began the season with 11 consecutive league wins and have lost only twice all season to build a 16-point lead at the summit.

Their efficient power game has the Tigers faithful purring and, with no home league losses so far this campaign, Welford Road is morphing back into the fortress that made Leicester English rugby’s dominant force for years.

Play-off chances: Leicester are all but certain to make the Premiership play-offs and only a stunning collapse can deny them a home semi-final.

The play-off probable

Saracens (2nd, 54 points)

Season so far: After a year in Championship exile, five-time champions Saracens returned to the top flight hell-bent on making up for lost time. However, the salary cap saga appears to have dented the once-domineering club and five defeats mean they are far from locked into a play-off spot.

Play-off chances: The pillars of the pre-relegation dynasty are still there. The squad remains teeming with international pedigree and no side has a better record of delivering at the business end of the season. Saracens missing the play-offs is mathematically possible, but simply does not seem feasible.

Finalists in jeopardy

Harlequins (3rd, 53 points)

Season so far: Battling just to make the play-offs is not a trait associated with defending champions. However, this season’s edition of Harlequins is much the same as last year’s title-winning campaign – an unpredictable side with the flair to win any game from anywhere.

Despite some outrageous attacking displays, Quins have not won – or lost – more than three consecutive league games this term.

Play-off chances: With internationals such as Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt returning after the Six Nations, and the outstanding Andre Esterhuizen in the centres, Harlequins have the personnel to make the top four.

However, they are yet to prove they can win consistently and with five of their final seven games against teams also pushing for the top four, they must find a way to do so soon.

Exeter Chiefs (4th, 50 points)

Season so far: After ending the previous campaign with a heartbreaking final defeat to Harlequins, Exeter lost three of their first six and have been playing catch-up ever since.

Results did slowly improve through mid-winter, though regular, uncharacteristic losses kept them languishing in mid-table. Then February finished with three straight wins, the last a 34-31 epic at Northampton, and they have broken into the Premiership play-off spots.

Play-off chances: The recent uptick in form is an ominous sign for the rest of the league. After years of being a regular-season juggernaut, there is every chance Rob Baxter’s side are relishing playing the role of the hunter, and international stars such as Stuart Hogg and Jack Nowell will certainly be up for the fight when they return.

Exeter’s regular season concludes with the visit of Harlequins and the stakes for that could be almost as high as last year’s final.

The surprise packages

London Irish (5th, 48 points)

Season so far: Unfancied at the start of the year, London Irish are making a surprise play-off push courtesy of a phenomenal team unit.

The back row includes tireless tacklers such as Tom Pearson and Albert Tuisue. The centre partnership has bulk in Benhard Janse van Rensburg and handling flair in Curtis Rona. Ollie Hassell-Collins adds pace out wide. Up front, hooker Agustin Creevy is the league’s joint-top try-scorer with nine, many of them from the rear of a strong maul.

Irish games also offer guaranteed drama – they have had four draws and eight games where both sides have scored at least 25 points.

Play-off chances: The Exiles will remain underdogs so long as they are part of the chasing pack. Nevertheless, they have a settled side, nothing to lose, and away victories over Exeter and Harlequins show they are more than a match for their play-off rivals.

Gloucester (6th, 47 points)

Season so far: Critics will call Gloucester’s style dull, proponents will call it efficient, but the Cherry-and-Whites faithful will not care if they keep winning. After finishing second-from-bottom last season, the rolling maul has driven a much-improved campaign, with the catch-and-drive their main source of tries.

Away from the pack, the likes of Adam Hastings, Mark Atkinson, Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit ensure Gloucester have plenty of threats in the back-line.

Play-off chances: As one of a handful of sides to have played only 16 games, sixth seems a false position for Gloucester. The last two rounds have featured a bye weekend and an away loss to the Leicester juggernaut, and as such they have fallen out of the Premiership play-offs. With their next six all against teams below them, a top-four spot feels like theirs to lose.

The outsiders

Sale Sharks (7th, 46 points)

Season so far: Semi-finalists last season, Sale started steadily before becoming a team transformed in the New Year. A stunning comeback win over Leicester at the end of January got the Sharks going and February brought three wins and a draw.

A powerful South African contingent, including the Du Preez brothers (Dan, Robert and Jean-Luc), has spearheaded the charge.

Play-off chances: With internationals including Tom Curry and, whisper it, Manu Tuilagi set to return by the start of next month, Sale’s physicality could get even more imposing as the season approaches its climax. The Sharks will hope those additions do not come too late, though, with Exeter and Gloucester coming up before the Six Nations finishes.

Wasps (8th, 43 points)

Season so far: Should Wasps make the play-offs, it would be one of the great achievements in their recent history. Injuries have ravaged Lee Blackett’s side, who were at one stage without 19 first-team squad members, but epic wins over Leicester, Exeter and Saracens since the turn of the year have ignited an unlikely play-off push.

Biyi Alo, Alfie Barbeary and Elliott Stooke are among the many who have thrived amid adversity.

Play-off chances: Wasps’ injury luck is improving, as embodied by the return of back-row Jack Willis after a 53-week absence, and they are another team with very little to lose. Even so, back-to-back defeats to Bristol and Quins have dampened expectations and Wasps need more minor miracles to make the play-offs.

Northampton Saints (9th, 42 points)

Season so far: Franklin’s Gardens has hosted plenty of eye-catching attacking rugby this season. Northampton have an electric back-line featuring an exciting young scrum-half in Alex Mitchell, a classy finisher in Courtnall Skosan, and fast, direct runners in Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman. Dan Biggar guides the show from fly-half when not on Wales duty.

The downside? The Saints allow their opponents to play the same high-scoring style, meaning Northampton sit in the bottom half with eight wins and eight defeats.

Play-off chances: Three consecutive losses to Leicester, Sale and Exeter mean Saints are slipping down the standings. March encounters with Gloucester, Wasps and London Irish will surely determine whether their league season stays exciting or fizzles out.

The upsetter

Bristol Bears (10th, 33 points)

The season so far: Bristol have seemingly never recovered from blowing a 28-0 lead to Harlequins in last season’s semi-finals. Despite returning with a similar squad, Pat Lam’s side have lacked fluency throughout this campaign. Their focus is surely on Sale in the last 16 of the European Champions Cup.

Play-off chances: Making the post-season is almost impossible, but the Bears may still influence the top-four race. A side featuring Semi Radradra, Kyle Sinckler and Harry Randall has the capacity to ruin a play-off hopeful’s season. Seven of the top nine still have to navigate the Bristol challenge.

Newcastle, Worcester and Bath in the bottom three are also well out of the race but, like Bristol, have the potential to upset other teams as they bid to make the top four.

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