The Gallagher Premiership play-off race takes yet another unexpected twist as Irish defeat Saracens


As the Gallagher Premiership enters its final 10 rounds, the intensifying battle for a top-four finish takes yet another unexpected twist.

With Leicester Tigers 11 points clear at the summit of the table and looking increasingly likely of finishing top for the first time in more than a decade, Saracens seem set to finish in second place on their Premiership return.

Mark McCall’s side looked to have snatched a vital four points at the Brentford Community Stadium when Nick Tompkins spun over with three minutes remaining.

However, Paddy Jackson had the final say as he kicked a last gasp penalty to earn London Irish a surprising 32-30 win.

Victory for Irish moves them two points behind Gloucester who sit fourth, and with the capital-side only three points off their total points from last campaign already, a top-four finish cannot be ruled out with the form Declan Kidney’s men are in.

Round 16 saw a number of play-off hopefuls make their claims with Harlequins, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, who are separated by five points, all winning their matches as the battle for the top four continues to intensify.

As the race for the top four intensifies, we take a look at some of the hopefuls.

Harlequins – Third place, 48 points

The reigning champions, who finished fourth in the regular season last campaign, recovered in Round 16 to avoid a fourth consecutive Premiership defeat after their 29-24 victory over Wasps at the Stoop.

During the run of losses, Quins were defeated by Sale Sharks and Saracens as well as suffering a stunning loss at the hands of rock-bottom Bath, a side who had only previously won once all season.

With the Six Nations in full swing, like many of the other play-off chasing teams, Harlequins are without a number of key players for their league fixtures.

Joe Marchant and Marcus Smith have been starters in England’s first two Six Nations matches, however, alongside Louis Lynagh, Marchant has been released ahead of Saturday’s match against Wales.

With Quins’ next three fixtures against Worcester Warriors, Newcastle Falcons and Bristol Bears, sides who are below them in the table, having Lynagh and Marchant back will be a positive sight for Quins supporters.

Gloucester – Fourth place, 47 points

The Cherry and Whites have recovered well from their worst-ever Premiership finish last campaign [11th], to currently occupy the final play-off place.

George Skivington’s side, who had their rest week during Round 16, have a game in hand on Harlequins. If Gloucester were to claim a bonus-point win from this fixture, they would leapfrog the Twickenham-based side and move two points behind Saracens.

Defeat to Exeter last time out ended a run of three consecutive wins for Gloucester, which included a one-point victory against Saracens as Alex Lozowski failed to convert a match-winning kick in the closing stages.

However, if Gloucester are to finish in the play-offs for the second time in the last decade, their next three matches against Leicester, Northampton and Sale are vital in determining their chances.

Exeter Chiefs – Fifth place, 45 points

The Chiefs, who were favourites to be crowned champions last season, ended up losing out in one of the best ever Premiership finals as they were beaten 40-38 by Harlequins at Twickenham.

Rob Baxter’s side started their pursuit of a third Premiership title in the worst way possible as they lost their two opening matches before recovering with three straight wins.

Exeter’s inconsistent performances have continued into the New Year with the Devon-based side winning three and losing three of their last six league matches.

With a number of key players away on Six Nations duty, such as Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie, the Chiefs must be careful not fall behind other chasing sides especially with their next opponents being Saints and Sharks.

London Irish – Sixth place, 45 points

In a season full of unexpected results, Irish pulled another rabbit out the hat victory last weekend when they defeated five-time Premiership champions Saracens.

Having already completed the double over last season’s runners-up Exeter, the Exiles stunned Sarries in their last outing to continue their adventitious aspirations of breaking into the top four.

With Premiership top try Agustin Creevy [9] and former Ireland international Jackson the third-highest points scorer [125] behind George Ford [148] and Lozowski [163], Irish will be aiming to build on their momentum with a third successive victory against Sale on Friday night.

Irish will be hoping they can outpace a number of strong runners and finish in the top four for the first time in 13 years when they finished runners-up to Leicester.

Sale Sharks – Seventh place, 43 points

After finishing in the top four for the first time in 15 years last season, Sale were fancied by many to improve this campaign. However, after a rocky start which saw the Sharks win two from seven, reassessments were made.

In recent weeks though, the Northwest side have become serious play-off contenders after winning four consecutive matches against Leicester, Harlequins, Worcester and Northampton.

With scrum-halfs Raffi Quirke and Faf de Klerk back pulling the strings, and winger Arron Reed scoring tries for fun, Sale are the most in-form team in the league over the last five matches after picking up 19 points.

Sale’s next three matches are season-defining as they face London Irish, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester in a row, and if Sanderson’s side can make points on their rivals, it could be their place to lose from the final seven rounds.

Wasps – Eighth place, 43 points

The West Midlands-based side are level on points with Sale but a place lower based on their points difference.

After starting the New Year off with a defeat against Sharks, Wasps went on a four-match winning run which was ended by Harlequins over the weekend.

During those fixtures, Lee Blackett’s side became the first team to defeat Leicester when they overcame the Tigers 16-13 at the Ricoh Arena, after recovering from being six points behind at the break.

Wasps have finished in the play-off places in four of the last six seasons, however, they have not been crowned champions since their success in 2008.

With four points to make up on Gloucester in fourth, Wasps have an ideal set of fixtures as they face strugglers Bristol and Newcastle within their next three matches so now is the perfect time to make their move.

Northampton Saints – Ninth place, 41 points

Despite being five league positions off the top four, Saints are still well and truly in the play-off chase.

With a game in hand on five of the six teams above them, and with Northampton seven points behind Quins, a bonus point victory would take Chris Boyd’s side to fifth in the table.

After a promising start to the season, which saw the Saints win four of their first five matches, Northampton have declined since the turning of the New Year.

Northampton have lost eight of their last 10 matches in all competitions, which includes back-to-back Premiership matches against the league leaders and fellow top-four hopefuls Sale in a closely contested one-point defeat at Franklin’s Gardens.

If Saints are to keep up with the rest of the pack, they must start winning. Northampton host Exeter on Sunday, and if the men in Black, Green and Gold are not victorious, it will be a monumental achievement if they were to recover and finish in the top four.

With 10 Rounds of Premiership Rugby to go, and an intensifying battle for the play-offs unfolding, expect many more unexpected twists.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt


About Author

Comments are closed.