Saracens have already claimed one of the play-off places but who will complete the line-up?

Premier 15s top four battle: The clubs fighting for the last semi-final spots

The 2021-22 Allianz Premier 15s season is proving to be the most competitive yet with five clubs vying for the three remaining semi-final spots.

There are just 13 points between second-placed Bristol Bears and Loughborough Lightning in sixth, with the final two rounds of the regular season to be played over the next two weekends.

There are only three places left in the top four as Saracens have already bagged their semi-final, a home one at that, with a dominant haul of 72 points from 16 matches.

The two-time winners have lost only one match this season, a 36-17 defeat by Harlequins, and look on track to reach their fourth straight final.

But who can join them in the semi-finals?

The top four battle

Clockwise from top left: Phoebe Murray, Kate Zackary, Florence Williams and Emily Scott (Getty Images)

The battle to finish in the Premier 15s top four is set to go to the wire, with Bristol, Exeter Chiefs, Harlequins, Wasps and Loughborough all capable of claiming a spot. And a lot of the fixtures over the final two rounds involve those sides playing each other.

Here’s all you need to know about their seasons so far and chances of bagging the place.

Bristol Bears

Current position: Second with 59 points. Remaining fixtures: Harlequins (h), 7 May; Exeter (a), 14 May

It’s been an exceptional season for Bristol who have made huge strides in their form from last term. They finished the 2020-21 campaign in eighth with just four wins. This season they already have 11 wins, including an impressive victory over Harlequins.

Their improvement has come with a new head coach in Dave Ward. The former Harlequins player took over the club at the start of the 2021-22 season. He not only brought in a wealth of experience but he made star signings with Leanne Infante and Abbie Ward.

He also brought the women’s team closer to the men’s. The two teams now have more contact, the women’s team use the men’s facilities to train and the men’s coach Pat Lam is more involved in the women’s side.

Bristol centre Phoebe Murray says of the improvements at the club: “Moving to the high-performance centre, we have fantastic facilities here, we train three nights a week.

“We have managed to get in all those extra sessions that mean that we are a much more cohesive team than we were last year. It’s little things like we have dinner after every training session together. The standards are set by the coaches but also by the players. We really strive that every session we take a step forward. We are always wanting to get better.

The top four battle

Dave Ward watches on as Bristol play Saracens (Getty Images)

“Ward has been one of the best coaches I have had the privilege of working with. He brings energy to every session. He is always making sure we are on our top game. He isn’t afraid to call us out when things aren’t going right or aren’t up to the standard he expects. He just brings a level-headedness about how to improve.”

Bristol’s last two fixtures of the regular season will see them play fellow top-four hopefuls Harlequins and Exeter.

“We’re aware of the implications of the outcomes of those games,” Murray adds. “They are must-win games for us. Credit to them, they are very good sides…

“We’re aware but that doesn’t stop us focusing on us. What we can do and how we can win.”

Exeter Chiefs

Current position: Third with 56 points. Remaining fixtures: Saracens (h), 7 May; Bristol (h), 14 May

It’s only Exeter’s second season in the league yet they are among the best clubs. They have continued how they started in the Premier 15s. In the 2020-21 campaign they won ten games and so far this season they have been victorious 11 times.

Last season they missed out on a semi-final by ten points and they will be focused on making sure this campaign doesn’t succumb to the same fate. Exeter will play Saracens and Bristol in their final two fixtures of the regular season.

Kate Zackary has been a part of Exeter’s journey since the beginning and tells Rugby World: “We are buzzing. As a second-year team, to find ourselves in this position I think is a fantastic nod to the work we have put in. The dedication of the team. Given everything we have given up it’s a nice repercussion of that.”

The prospect of what it would mean for Exeter to achieve their first league semi-final is something Zackary finds hard to put into words.

“I don’t think there are enough words to describe what it would mean,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I personally have been in a (league) semi-final. So even on a personal level it’s an outstanding achievement, for myself and also for the club.

“We have given up so much to achieve these goals. To be part of a team that is competitive. And itching to get to the final and then even for those post-season benefits of being at the top of our game in a World Cup year.”

Exeter won the inaugural Allianz Cup after being triumphant over Harlequins, which means they could become the first club to do the women’s domestic double in England.

Zackary adds on the potential record: “It would have huge meaning. To show once again as a second-year team to be in those top events of the cup and the Premier 15s, it just shows where we’re going.”

Harlequins

Current position: Fourth with 55 points. Remaining fixtures: Bristol (a), 7 May; Loughborough (a), 14 May

Defending champions Harlequins will finish this regular season with fewer wins than the last campaign. They are currently on 11 for the 2021-22 season, meaning the most they can bag is 13. In the last campaign they had 14 to their name.

A high point of Quins’ season was hosting the first league match at Twickenham. They beat Wasps at the home of English rugby and set an attendance record. The toughest game of their season, meanwhile, was their loss to Bristol at home. It was their second defeat of the season and they were convincingly beaten at the Stoop.

What will be interesting is if the side manage to bag a semi but remain in fourth. Every season they have managed to secure a home knockout match, never having to travel away to book their final spot. And if things remain as they stand, Quins would be travelling to rivals Saracens so fans would have a new club in the final as each has been contested between the two London clubs so far.

But Quins fly-half Emily Scott say the team won’t be affected if they do have to travel for their semi. She tells Rugby World: “To be honest it is not something we’ve spoken about. It’s not something we’re thinking about at the moment. We’ve still got two really big games coming up.

“If and when it does come around, the fact of whether it’s home or away, I think is not going to be the main focus for us. It’s going to be about performance and doing the best we can. We know travelling away, whether that’s Saracens or Exeter, they are always tough games. It’s just going to be about trying to get the performance right.”

Wasps

Current position: Fifth with 50 points. Remaining fixtures: Gloucester-Hartpury (a), 7 May; Saracens (a), 14 May

Wasps have had a bumpy season as they have only managed to bag nine wins compared to 14 in 2020-21. An element of their campaign that has put them in touching distance of the play-offs is beating Harlequins in March. It was a cracking match that kept their season hopes alive.

Wasps will hunt to keep that spark lit as they compete against Gloucester-Hartpury and Saracens in their final regular-season matches.

Fly-half Florence Williams admits the club are in a tricky position as their semi-final spot is dependant on match outcomes out of their control. “Our fate almost isn’t in our hands,” she says. “There is constant speculation of, ‘Who is going to win that game?’. It would be great to be at this point in the season and be in Saracens’ position. Be in there solidly.

“The excitement from a player point of view is so good. You don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve never been in this position before. So it is exciting but also slightly disconcerting. We could win these next two games with bonus points and it’s not necessarily enough.”

And she added while she would have liked the matches to be on BBC Two, she’s excited at the prospect of the semi-finals and finals being on TV.

“I think any possible visibility or growth of visibility, especially from highly-regarded broadcasters like BT and BBC, is great for the game,” Williams says. “I really hope it gets promoted and scheduled in a really positive way so we can make the most of those views.

“It would have been amazing to get that final on BBC Two but BT Sport is a brilliant channel to be on. I hope it does break some records and we see the best final in AP15s history. I’m sure next year will be even bigger as well.”

Loughborough Lightning

Current position: Sixth with 46 points. Remaining fixtures: Worcester (a), 7 May; Harlequins (h), 14 May

A lot needs to fall in Loughborough’s favour for them to make the top four but should Wasps and Harlequins fail to pick up any match points in their remaining games and Lightning get the full ten on offer they can do it.

It’s been a mixed season for the club. They have won only half of their 16 league matches to date, drawing another two, but they have also been without Emily Scarratt for much of the campaign.

She is back for the end-of-season run-in and it’s hard to write off any side that contains talent like the Red Roses centre, Sarah Hunter, Helena Rowland, Lark Davies, Helen Nelson, Sadia Kabeya…

Premier 15s top four battle: Who will make the cut?

So who will finish in the top four? We think it will be Saracens, Bristol, Harlequins and Exeter.

Saracens have been dominant and so are likely to defeat Exeter and Bristol will finish on a high meaning Susie Appleby’s side could lose their last two matches.

Bristol should also overcome Harlequins, they beat them in the reverse fixture and have the home advantage this time round. Dave Ward’s side should close out the regular season with two wins.

With the predicted loss to Bristol, Quins should come back and defeat Loughborough meaning their season will end with one loss and one win.

Wasps should beat Gloucester-Hartpury but they are likely to lose against Saracens and Loughborough should beat Worcester but Quins are likely to have the upper hand over them.

That would mean Saracens would finish on 80 points, Bristol would have 67, Quins would record 59, Exeter would have 56, Wasps would finish on 54 and Loughborough on 50. So the final four would be Saracens, Bristol, Harlequins and Exeter.

Premier 15s top four battle: When are the semi-finals?

The two semi-finals will be held on Sunday 22 May, one kicking off at 2pm and one at 4.30pm. One venue will be the Stone X Stadium with Saracens securing a home semi-final and the other semi-final will be hosted by whichever club finishes second in the table.

The final will be held at Worcester Warriors’ home ground Sixways on Friday 3 June and tickets are available via the RFU’s ticketing website.

The semi-finals and final will be available to watch on BT Sport, BBC iPlayer and premier15s.com.

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