After a gruelling eight months of domestic rugby, delayed and then compressed by England’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup, the regular Aviva Premiership season concluded last weekend.
Joining first-placed Saracens – who have now topped the league in three of the last four seasons – in the play-offs are Exeter, Wasps and Leicester Tigers, who will battle it out to decide who will become this season’s champions.
Here we take a look at the two semi-finals taking place next weekend as the season enters its final stages…
Saracens vs. Leicester Tigers
Last year’s champions host English rugby’s most successful side in the professional era and it promises not to be a clash for the faint-hearted. Saracens recovered from losing a multitude of players to England’s Gram-Slam Six Nations campaign to win all five of their remaining games and finish the regular season top of the pile on 80 points. They have the small matter of Saturday’s European Champions Cup final against Racing 92 to deal with first but with their forward pack as dominant as ever and the likes of Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode firing on all cylinders in the back-line, they’ll be happy to continue their end of season momentum in the quest for a double.
Fourth-placed Leicester Tigers on the other hand have an extra week to prepare, having been knocked out of Europe by Sarries’ Parisian opponents. Theirs has been a season which has gradually gathered thrust, with head coach Aaron Mauger’s influence under Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill growing and Leicester now producing some excellent rugby to go with their traditional grunt and power. Expect a huge performance from talisman Manu Tuilagi, as he attempts to convince England head coach Eddie Jones he is worth a starting place on the summer tour to Australia.
Leicester will appear in the end of season play-offs for the 12th successive year and it would be foolish to dismiss their chances of causing an upset at Allianz Park. However Saracens’ season has been practically faultless, positioning themselves as the strongest club side in Europe this year. A forward pack spearheaded by George Kruis, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers will not be intimidated by the Tigers and with 18 of the past 23 play-off semi-finals being won by the home side, it is difficult to look past Sarries, regardless of whether they come into the match as European champions or beaten finalists.
Exeter Chiefs vs. Wasps
In the season of underdogs, Exeter Chiefs are looking to emulate the heights of Leicester City after finishing in their highest ever league position in second place. Their appearance in this season’s play-offs caps a remarkable rise, having won promotion to the Premiership just six years ago. The secret to their success has been the smart management of Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, the promotion of several superb youngsters through the academy ranks and into the first XV – think Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell – and smart buys of players underused and undervalued at previous clubs.
Wasps are in the play-offs for the first time since the 2007/08 season when they won the title and their rise this season has been spectacular. A slow start in the league began to gather rapid momentum during the Six Nations when they capitalised on their opponents’ loss of players and form to go on a run of six straight victories. They lost to Exeter two rounds ago which ultimately cost them second spot and a home semi-final but they’ll be confident of going to Sandy Park and getting a result – after a season which included a thumping win away to Saracens. This may be their best chance to win the league, with talents such as Eliot Daly, Nathan Hughes and the electric Christian Wade surely set for further England recognition in the coming years – to add to seasoned internationals like James Haskell and Joe Launchbury.
This has game of the season written all over it. As Rob Baxter bluntly put it, if a semi-final doesn’t bring out the best in Exeter they don’t deserve to be there. The Chiefs will probably wish they didn’t have the weekend off after their 62-24 demolition of Harlequins last week and will be chomping at the bit to secure a third win over Wasps this season. For Wasps, a win would be one more step to an incredibly successful season on and off the pitch and would vindicate the brave decision to up sticks from their traditional home in London and move to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena – it would be equally brave to bet against them.
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