Currently occupying 6th-8th: Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Bath
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Well, Round 21 of the Gallagher Premiership was certainly interesting. Our predicted results took a bit of a hammering with Wasps’ late comeback against London Irish but that victory was huge for Wasps, moving them up to seventh in the table with a game to go against (fittingly) sixth-placed Leicester Tigers, who had their own late drama with that bizarre finish against Bristol.
What we’re left with is a five-way battle for three remaining spots to qualify for the Champions Cup. You would be staggered if Leicester miss out entirely, even if they lose to Wasps, but the rest are in a scrap.
Which, in a season without relegation, has at least given the final day of the season an interesting twist for the teams outside of the top four placings. Even if it might seem odd that a team with only six wins (Irish) could end up in the Champions Cup next season.
A quick word for Gloucester, who might have beaten Bath and could have produced a bonus-point win over Worcester to end their season on a high and secure a top-eight finish. Covid-19 has taken both opportunities away from them, which is a real shame, leaving them down in 11th place and out of the running.
Note: Teams tied on league points are separated by matches won and then points difference
Fixtures: Wasps (A)
They piled the pressure on Bristol with those late scrums and whether John Afoa should have come back on or not, Leicester seemed certain to get over the line. One mis-controlled scrum later and Bristol had done enough to hang on, leaving Leicester to go another week to secure sixth place.
Leicester have 10 wins and a strong points difference of only -21 compared to the rest of the contenders, which definitely counts in their favour. Say Leicester lost with no bonus points, then Newcastle would still need a miraculous bonus-point win at Harlequins to knock Leicester down the ladder, for example.
Any form of bonus point at Wasps should be enough but this is a Leicester side who came up narrowly short against the league leaders in Bristol and had also won their two previous games against Harlequins and Worcester, so they can certainly win in Coventry. Look out for recent England call-ups Dan Kelly and Joe Heyes, plus Springbok No 8 call-up Jasper Wiese too. Steve Borthwick, the head coach at the end of his first full season, has made some impact.
Predicted finish: 7th – 50 points (losing bonus point against Wasps)
Fixtures: Leicester (H)
Just an extraordinary comeback in Brentford. Even when Wasps scored twice early in the second half they still had a mountain to climb, and they conquered it thanks to Tom Willis’ hat-trick. Josh Bassett’s been brilliant all season and it’s heartening to see him called up by England.
Leicester at home is a tricky test for many reasons. Tigers’ pack has improved phenomenally and that will test Wasps at both the maul and scrum. Prop Tom West’s knee injury couldn’t come at a worse time, with the loosehead causing havoc against Irish before he came off.
But on the back of last week – the first half was dreadful from Wasps, the second half magnificent – plus with supporters back in the Ricoh, you just get the feeling momentum might be on their side. Willis was just so physically immense in that second half, Jacob Umaga looked like a different player after half-time, while Dan Robson should start for England in the summer on current form. If Wasps pull this off (as expected), then Lee Blackett deserves plenty of credit because whatever was said down 33-10 against London Irish at half-time. It worked out superbly.
Predicted finish: 6th – 52 points (win over Leicester)
Fixtures: Northampton (H)
Now it gets interesting. Bath’s Covid-19 win over Gloucester was a huge leg-up for a side who had lost their last four Premiership matches, and they would have been underdogs at Kingsholm. They’re in eighth, for now, but will want to get at least a bonus point or two against Northampton just to hold off London Irish.
Intriguingly, Bath had more players in Eddie Jones’ first England squad of the summer than any other club, with even Max Ojomoh, the exciting young back who has only made a handful of appearances, drafted straight into England’s setup. Miles Reid’s call-up makes a lot of sense and he could crack into the squad on a long-term basis, while Sam Underhill may end up being captain this summer. Charlie Ewels, Tom de Glanville, Beno Obano Ben Spencer and Joe Cokanasiga have all been selected.
England’s 34-man training squad, players by club
Which is a long-winded way of saying that Bath are too talented a side to be finishing the season with five consecutive defeats (on the field). Northampton put in a heroic effort against Exeter, ultimately losing after being down to 14 men for so long, but in that first half they were relentless. If Bath can’t answer Northampton’s challenge, then they’ll be nervously checking Teletext Twitter regarding what’s happening at Ashton Gate…
Predicted finish: 8th – 47 points (defeat to Northampton)
9. London Irish
Fixtures: Bristol (A)
…where London Irish, a team who haven’t won in the Premiership since the end of March, are surely set for a tough afternoon. Had Northampton defeated Exeter – and there looked to be a decent chance of that with an 18-0 lead at half-time – Bristol would have secured first place in the table a round early and been able to put their feet up if they wanted, resting players for the semi-finals next week.
But that didn’t happen. And Bristol want that first-place finish, as Pat Lam stressed this week. Which means London Irish are heading for a bit a buzzsaw in the south west.
The Exiles are a better side than their record suggests but three late defeats now to Harlequins, Gloucester and Wasps, conceding pivotal late scores, have been back-breaking for their season. The fact that they’re still in the mix for the top eight is a credit to their ability to pick up bonus points – nine for tries, five losing – and you could see them picking up one of each against Bristol. But Bath have the tiebreaker with more wins (nine) to Irish’s six. It would take an enormous effort and they may just come up short.
Predicted finish: 9th – 47 points (fewer wins than Bath)
Fixtures: Harlequins (A)
Very hard to call what happens at The Stoop until Harlequins show their hand. There’s technically no need to roll out the front-line starters aside from maintaining continuity heading into the play-offs, with a trip to Bristol or Exeter on the horizon next weekend.
Resting players would certainly help Newcastle. Say Bath and London Irish both lose, Newcastle could overtake them both with a bonus-point win. Or edge out Bath on a tiebreaker with more match wins (10 to Bath’s nine).
That would make for a brilliant end to a promising first campaign back in the top flight for the Falcons, because despite their mid-season slump Newcastle have been comfortably better overall than Gloucester and Worcester, arguably London Irish too. Having four forwards called up by England this week (plus the rapid Adam Radwan in the backs) felt like just reward for a strong campaign. But if Harlequins go full strength, given Newcastle haven’t won away from home in the Premiership since defeating Wasps at the start of December… that might be a tough ask.
Predicted finish: 10th – 46 points (losing bonus point and try bonus point in defeat to Harlequins)