English Premiership Round 20 Preview
The race for the semi finals is really starting to get interesting now, with nine teams still in with a chance of reaching the top four. This weekends games come in the shadow of round four of the Six Nations, so some international stars are missing. But this weekend is still shaping up to be exciting, with some brilliant matchups throughout.
Worcester Warriors vs Exeter Chiefs
The first game of the weekend sees the high flying Exeter Chiefs travel to Sixways, to face bottom of the table Worcester Warriors.
The Chiefs are certainly the favorite heading into this game, currently in excellent form. Exeter have won their last four premiership games since their 26-27 defeat at home to Wasps on the 5th of February.
These wins have not always been the most convincing, with their last three margins of victory being 7 points or below. In fact their last game was an incredibly tight affair at Sandy Park. Exeter scraped out a 19-12 win against Sale, in a game that they should have won comfortably.
While it may not have been the performance they were looking for, the Chiefs still got four points from the game, as well as a brilliant return for Jacques Vermeulen, who hit the ground running after a 10-month injury layoff. While the Chiefs will still be missing a lot of international talent, they have bags of experience and skill within the current team that should be able to get the job done.
On the other side, this has been a season to forget for Worcester, currently sitting bottom of the premiership having won only one of their last eight games, and coming off the back of a dismal defeat that saw British and Irish Lion Duhan Van Der Merwe sent off for a forearm to the face. Van Der Merwe received a ban that will prevent him from playing any part in the rest of the Six Nations.
With a very young team, lacking talent in key areas, it looks to be another pretty difficult game for Worcester, who will hope for any points coming out of this game for a chance to jump off of the bottom of the premiership.
Leicester Tigers vs London Irish
The first of the 3pm Saturday games see the two surprise teams of this season clash at Welford Road. The bigger surprise out of the two has to be the Tigers form this season, having finished in sixth last season. Steve Borthwick’s team currently sit atop of the table, with a 12 point lead over second place Saracens heading into this weeks games.
But Leicester are coming off the back of only their third loss on the season, losing a high scoring affair at StoneX stadium to second placed Saracens. Interestingly, there were big changes made to last week’s team, with Nemani Nadolo, Japser Wiese and Guy Porter all dropping to the bench, despite it being the Tigers biggest game of the season.
Julian Montoya and Dan Cole were also absent from the game, although both should be back in time for this weekends game, against a side that Tigers boss Borthwick has called “dangerous” and “outstanding”.
Pretty appropriate words from Borthwick, with London Irish building up to a surprise push for the top four, with very few people expecting that at the start of the season. But they have been brilliant at times this season, dismantling Worcester in a bonus point win last week, which included a double for league leading try scorer Agustin Creevy.
But Creevy is certainly not the only bit of quality that London Irish have. In the last four games, Paddy Jackson, Benhard Janse van Rensburg and Sean O’Brien have all been excellent, with Irish being able to handle their four players lost to the Six Nations very well.
Coming off the back of a disappointing loss, Leicester will certainly not steam roll London Irish, with this game potentially being the upset of the weekend if London Irish can replicate some of their recent form, having beaten Saracens three weeks ago, the same team that beat Leicester last week.
Newcastle Falcons vs Saracens
The Falcons head home, currently the worst form team in the Gallagher Premiership. Newcastle are coming off the back of seven straight defeats, easily the worst form of any premiership team. They currently sit just a point off of bottom, and considering there is no relegation, the Falcons don’t have much to play for in this game.
There were still some good elements of their game against Harlequins last Friday night. Falcons were able to keep it close for large portions of the game, with George McGuigan and Adam Radwan once again excelling, with McGugan constantly being able to break through Harlequins defensive lines.
As well as a long list of injuries, the Falcons will still be without their star flanker Callum Chick, who is still suspended after his red card two weeks ago against. There is a chance Chick could return, but at the moment it is still unlikely. While the semi finals are out of reach, Newcastle will at least want to take some momentum into next season with some good results in the run in.
But their visitors this Saturday have a lot still to play for, with Saracens starting to look like the team that dominated the premiership a few years ago. With an impressive victory at home last week against league leaders Leicester, Saracens come into this game with a lot of confidence and will look to put up big points against the Falcons.
The most worrying part for the rest of the league is that this team is only getting to get healthier in the next few weeks. Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell will not play in this game, with Mako being taken off after two minutes against Leicester last week, after badly twisting his ankle. Saracens will also be missing Elliot Daly, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Nick Isiekwe, Max Malins and Nick Tompkins.
But despite all of these players missing, Sarries are playing some of their best rugby right now, with Billy Vunipola playing excellently over the last few weeks. They should have more than enough talent to get a bonus point victory this weekend in Newcastle.
Sale Sharks vs Gloucester
The last game on Saturday means a huge amount for both teams, as sixth place Gloucester head north to face seventh placed Sale, as both teams still look to reach the semi finals with few games remaining.
The home side are slightly further away from the top four at the moment, with Sale currently seven points behind fourth placed Exeter at the moment. But Jono Ross and his team will know that all it takes is a couple good results and they can be back in the top four, starting with a big win against Gloucester.
While Sale will be missing Tom Curry and Manu Tuilagi this weekend, the teams large South African contingent will be in full force this week, with Faf de Klerk likely back starting after Raffi Quirke concussion last week against Exeter.
If they can dominate in their pack, Sale have a brilliant chance this weekend. But their opponents are certainly looking strong at the moment.
The Cherry and White have a great chance of the top four, as they have played a game less than the other teams in the race, including Sale. When they are firing on all cylinders, there are very few teams better than Gloucester.
But they have certainly not been playing their best rugby, winning only one of their last three games thanks to a five point win at home last week. The Six Nations have really hurt the team, particularly with Adam Hastings being called up to the Scotland squad this week.
Hastings had been playing very well for Gloucester and looked as though he could’ve stayed with the team throughout all of the Six Nations.
But due to injuries or international call ups, Gloucester will be without Louis Rees-Zammitt, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris and Johnny May all missing. One big return is Lewis Ludlow, who was surprisingly released by England despite being called up to the training squad last week. Ludlow has made the second most tackles in the premiership this season and is crucial to what Gloucester are trying to do.
This game really could go either way. Both teams are missing some crucial players and are both still hunting for the top four. Both should know how important this game is, and it is sure to be an exciting clash between two excellent teams.
Bristol Bears vs Harlequins
The first game on Sunday sees a pretty exciting rematch in store, as Harlequins visit Ashton Gate for the first time since overcoming a 28-0 deficit in the Premiership semi finals last season, on their way to the title. The two teams come into this game in very different positions to how they were last time they placed at Ashton Gate.
For Bristol, it has been a season to forget as they currently sit tenth in the table, 20 points off the playoffs. It is pretty incredible that the Bears have no chance of making the playoffs, considering they finished top of the premiership last season.
Not only that, but the Bears come into this game off the back of an embarrassing loss to west country rivals Bath, having led the game 24-5 at half time. The Bears imploded in the second half, mainly down to three yellow cars and a first half red card for Ratu Naulago, after the Fijian hit Will Butt in the head with a very high tackle. This was Naulagos second red card of the season, landing him a four week ban.
As well as Naulago, the Bears are still without Kyle Sinckler and Harry Randall, who will both play a big role for England this weekend. The strangest part of the teams decline is that the rest of the team is pretty healthy. Semi Radrada, Piers O’Cono, Chris Vui and Callum Sheedy all played in their defeat last week. They are without Charles Piutau and Luke Morahan. But the Bears will still be looking to up their performance heading into this weekend.
Harlequins face an enticing trip down the M4, coming of the back of three solid wins against teams in the lower half of the table. Their last game was a solid performance against the Falcons, where the team overcame ill discipline to win by two tries and claim a bonus point.
But Quins certainly are struggling without their main man Marcus Smith. What is even worse for the team is that both Alex Dombrandt and Louis Lynagh have tested positive for COVID in the past few days. It means Quins enter this weekend missing five internationals this weekend.
But Quins are still looking good, with Tyrone Green leading the league in metres gained and defenders beaten, with Cadan Murley leading the league in clean breaks. The team has bags of talent, with Prop Wilco Louw returning to the starting line-up last game for the first time since the premiership final.
It is another great opportunity for Quins to take another step closer to the top four. They have some difficult games coming up to end the season, so a win against lowly Bristol is crucial for Tabai Matson’s squad if they want to defend their title.
Northampton Saints vs Wasps
The final game of the weekend is another between two teams who still have aspirations of the top four. The game is to be played at Franklin Gardens, with Northampton and Waps both struggling at the moment.
For the home team, the Saints have experienced a huge slip in form, losing their last four games in a row, after being what seemed like a certainty for the semi-finals. Their last three losses have been the most heart-breaking, all by a try or less with Northampton losing their last home game to a 80th minute penalty by Joe Simmons.
A big reason for their form slipping is losing crucial players to the Six Nations. Courtney Lawes, Dan Biggar and Lewis Ludlam all missing games. There is a 50/50 chance that club captain Ludlam could return to the Saints team this weekend, if he can overcome return to play protocols.
But the Saints are still missing some key players with Paul Hill, Teiman Harrison and Tom Wood all still missing. But the Saints are certain to get back Alex Mitchell and George Furbank after both were released by England on Tuesday.
The Saints opposition are also coming into the game off bad form, with the Wasps losing their last two games. But the fact that the Wasps are anywhere near the semi-finals is impressive, as they have been decimated by injuries this season. But the Wasps are getting healthy.
They will be without Joe Launchbury and Alfie Barbeary as both have been selected in the England squad. Injuries wise, it’s pretty mixed news from the Wasps camp. Brad Shields is back in training this week and could feature, while Malakai Fekitoa will be assessed as close to the game as possible. Wasps top try scorer Dan Frost is also set to return.
If they get lucky towards the end of the week, this could be a game for the Wasps to start moving back up the table. Both teams are 11 points off fourth placed and a loss could spell the end of any playoff hopes for either team. It is going to be an exciting encounter, with both teams putting it all on the line.