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THE PERFECT GIFT GUIDE FOR YOUR (NEARLY) PERFECT FAMILY

 

Ahh Christmas! The festive food treats, the smell of pine needles, Christmas carols, presents….

 

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No mixed feelings – I want England to win this

Some people have said to me recently ‘surely if England win, you will have mixed feelings about 2003 being overshadowed?’ - they could not be more wrong. I can honestly say there will be no one more p...

Can England Waltz Into The Semi Finals?

There is nothing the Aussies like more in the world than beating us at sport. Pommie bashing almost qualifies as a sport itself down under and I love that. This sporting rivalry is like no other and m...

WORLD CUP BLOSSOMS IN JAPAN, SHOCKER IN SHIZUOKA AND FIJI FANTASY RUGBY

When the whistle blew in Shizuoka and Japanese fans erupted in the stands after an epic victory against Ireland you had to feel this was a shift in the World game. 

It has been a while since a team h...

Raging Bull hits the Pro14!

ULSTER RUGBY BACKED BY THE BULL

Ulster Rugby was looking for a company to kit out the players off the field when a new label to Northern Ireland landed in House of Fraser, Belfast. 

Raging Bull mens...

Chiefs so close and Babas beaten

Henry Slade the Exeter number 13 said after the pulsating final at Twickenham that this felt like the worst loss of all because they really thought they had Saracens. The England centre is right in feeling that as they genuinely were on top but it is instructive to also listen to the words spoken by Saracens head man mark McCall after the game. He said it was the best Exeter had played in the three finals and that they should be massively encouraged at by how they could so have easily won the game. McCall knows that success at Saracens did not happen overnight and they lost a lot of European knock out games before they got it right. McCall will be only to aware that Exeter are breathing right down the neck of his team and the next time they meet in a final the small moments may well go Exeter’s way.

Exeter are a bit unlucky in that their period of dominance in the Gallagher league has coincided with Saracens arrival as a European powerhouse. Exeter and Saracens are looking like two closely matched sides with the Devon side showing all the signs Saracens showed a few years ago of learning from defeats and making improvements every year. The two clubs have slightly different models with The Chiefs building their culture from being a local side based far from everyone else and recruiting cleverly to supplement those local lads. Saracens have had to build their culture internally being unable to rely on locality as a club that draw its support from all around the M25 and beyond. Like Exeter the core is however academy who have grown and developed with the club and benefitted in recent years from smart signings. Both teams however have arrived at the same point and Saracens superiority may just be their extra experience in finals and such a settled side that by all accounts they are now starting to coach themselves.

The way Exeter actually played on Saturday was outstanding with a smart game plan that neutralised so many of Saracen’s strengths. The high ball so majestically utilised by Saracens against Gloucester just did not work against the Chiefs who were alive to the tap back and got numbers back to surround the receiver and chasing Saracens’ player. The forwards were magnificent with the power of Dave Ewers and Don Armand nicely balanced by the pilfering instinct and hard carrying of Matt Kvesic. To a man Exeter were awesome with the slippery eel that is Jack Nowell putting in a man of the match performance. Eddie Jones will be cursing his luck if Jack’s 70th minute injury is serious enough to knock him out of the World Cup.

As for Saracens, by their own admission, they struggled to find the intensity they displayed against Leinster and Gloucester. It was credit to Exeter that you just know against most sides a 90% Saracens would still have won comfortably but it was nowhere near good enough for The Chiefs.

This incredible match which swung backwards and forwards seemed to have been won by Henry Slade around the 60 minute mark with a try that took Exeter to what seemed an unbridgeable 11 point lead. At that stage Rob Baxter, a man not given to a huge amount of emotion win or lose, leapt to his feet and celebrated as hard as the players on the pitch. This shift in both teams’ heads was clear with Exeter believing they were going to win and just now needed to defend the lead whilst Saracens suddenely shifted a gear knowing they now had no choice but to switch on and up the intensity otherwise they were going to be well beaten.

After that Slade try I thought Exeter switched off for a couple of minutes and shortly afterwards Liam Williams soared into the air to catch a pinpoint perfect kick for the start of the comeback. It led to 21 unanswered points and a whole momentum shift as Exeter saw their lead slip away. It was magnificent rugby from both sides, exhausting to watch never mind play in and it was overall the final the league deserved.

After the nerve shredding excitement of Saturday’s final the two Barbarian games on Sunday were the perfect way to finish off the regular rugby season. A historic women’s game kicked us off and showcased the brilliant expansion of womens rugby and just how much skills have improved as well as the physicality of the players. England up against a Babas side stuffed with talent were themselves too well organised and too good a team to allow the visitors much room for razzle dazzle.

Shout out to the winger for the Barbarains Tova Derk who well over 18 months ago I met on our Raging Bull photoshoot when she was modelling our women’s range as an unknown Sweden sevens player!

Another player I am going to claim a little ownership of is Alex Dombrant the ex Uni forward making huge waves at Harlequins. Alex was named the Raging Bull Young Player of the Year at The Rugby Paper Awards last week and what a delight to see him out at Twickenham in the white shirt demonstrating precisely why. He is a big unit but runs smart lines and has fantastic handling skills. Given there are quite a few back rowers in front of him at the moment it would take a swathe of injuries to see him make Japan but with Eddie in the stadium casting an eagle eye over the boys Dombrandt could get pulled into the wider training squad.

Studying the team sheets before the game I was predicting another Babas masterclass like we saw last year but this group of young and raw England lads were superb. Marcus Smith, another Quin, is moving sharply away from Apprentice status to a true contender for the World Cup. He is ridiculously young but let’s also remember Jonny Wilkinson and Owen Farrell were also making waves at this age and stepping up in big games and dealing with the pressure. What a multitude of talent Eddie Jones has to pick from in England and if injuries do strike in the World Cup squad there were many out there on Sunday who could step up.

And so my friends we come to the end of the 18/19 rugby season which allows us to take a breather and prepare ourselves for the mother of all tournaments when the Rugby World Cup gets underway in September. See you on the sofa.

AND THEN THERE WERE TWO

It started back in September and ends this coming Saturday in Twickenham. And the two teams we all thought would be there for the finale are almost inevitably Exeter and Saracens. Rugby fans generally might be wishing for a new team to gate crash the duopoly but if the aim of the league is to crown the best team - we have the best two fighting it out and that has got to be right.

Both Exeter and Saracens are performing a few levels above the chasing pack but that is in a way exciting for the other 10. They can see quite clearly how and where they need to improve as the two clubs are setting standards and teams know they have to improve to catch them. It is no longer about just buying in the best players and both these two are not playing that game. Out of the Saracens starting 23 on Saturday only really Liam William was a ‘big’ name when he was signed and the slew of internationals and B & I Lions only became so whilst at Saracens. There is a golden generation too at Saracens where in one Academy year group they had Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis and Jackson Wray – there of whom who went on to become B & I Lions. That is some hit rate! Exeter has also signed very few superstars and has built success with their local Devon and Cornwall lads and canny signings such as Matt Kvesic, Ollie Devoto and Nic White. What it demonstrates is whilst money and rich backers play a role in developing a club it is other intangible things that create a winning team. Culture, spirit, togetherness, bravery and desire all rolled together with a dollop of self-belief and momentum. There is no reason at all that other teams cannot become the next Exeter or Saracens.

Consistency and stability are the two buzz words at the moment but there is a shed load of science underpinning it. Sports teams statistically win more things when they have a stable group of players and coaches with only minimum changes. It makes me feel next season will still be tough for Leicester who will be starting again with nearly half a new squad. Wholesale squad changes mean time spent bedding in players and sometimes it can take a season before they look the part. Lima Sopanga is one such and indeed Willie Le Roux took a while to show his world class abilities. Lima should be playing with much more confidence and self belief next season and Wasps should be able to look forward to seeing the best of the All Black.

Looking at Gloucester and Northampton the best bit is they will have that stability next season with no big changes and some tweaks and small improvements in their squads. They both have got savvy and inspirational coaches who have noticeably improved them so I see these two in particular making some big gains next year.

Gloucester will feel, despite the scoreline at Allianz Park, that they are not lagging hugely behind Saracens. The three tries they scored sliced and diced the Saracens defence and then there was the Alex Goode intercept which foiled a potential walk over the line. Matching up player by player Gloucester had the pack to take on Sarries but Ed Slater’s injury took some of the power out of the engine room. Saracens have built a mentality around their game where intensity levels rarely drop off in big matches. Indeed, they rely on intensity and desire to both get them over the gainline and stop the oppo in their tracks. Just watch Big Billy Vunipola tracking back to tackle Cipriani when the mercurial fly half looked set to run the ball out of his own 22. Or even Owen Farrell in the last minutes of the game failing to prevent a Gloucester try and thumping his fist into the surface in frustration. Saracens were winning by about 30 points at the time…

The kick to re-gather tactic of Saracens was almost impossible to play against and was the key weapon used by the men in black. Alex Sanderson in the post-match chat talked about how it is not luck that makes the tactic successful and that they employ specific tactics and skills to give themselves the opportunity to win the ball back from their kicks. Gloucester will be studying this over the summer I am sure and with not too much disruption to their squad during the World Cup they have the perfect opportunity to hone their game plan and keep building the spirit within the squad.  The wonderful cherry & white fans who packed out the Allianz in huge numbers will I am sure be marking the days to the new season and excited about just how far Ackerman can take this side.

Northampton Saints at half time in Sandy Park would have believed anything was possible with two wonderful tries scored and a third try coughed up that would have given them the lead. Exeter however are a patient team and a powerful one and they rarely panic. There was some eye-catching talent on display in the Saints team with the class of the half backs outshining Exeter by significant margins. As always though it is the pack where Saints were overwhelmed with the Exeter 8 keeping control and employing their usual successful game plan. You can’t however dismiss Exeter as a one trick pony as they can definitely play a bit too. I could watch Henry Slade all day and the new guy

Thomas O’Flahtery on the wing is tearing it up. Stuart Hogg’s arrival next season will add a further dash of international class from full back that should increase the Chiefs attacking prowess even further.

For Exeter, who will go into next weekend as slight underdogs, it will be about showing what they learnt from last year’s defeat in the final. They are improved but so are Saracens so it will be about finding the tiny weak edges of each other’s game to apply pressure. Exeter’s wonderful ability to score from short range cannot be underestimated and if Saracens give away too many penalties this could be where Chiefs have the upperhand. Without the two first choice front rows Saracens may find the scrum creaks a bit against the quality Exeter props. Jamie George also looked like he was carrying a couple of injuries and the British & Irish Lion will be badly missed if he does not get off the treatment table in time. Although Saracens have Nick Tompkins to step in for captain Brad Barritt by starting Tompkins they weaken their bench and may need one of the academy lads to step in. In fact, the bench could be where Exeter apply that pressure. When Saracens emptied their bench in the semi they failed to score and conceded two tries.

There will be another match going on at the weekend when a very much Saxons type England side have to face up against a Pat Lam coached Barbarians. The Babas will be stuffed as normal with some sensational talent and with Lam in charge will not lack for a bit of cohesion and team spirit. For the England lads, with only a handful that have had any time with the senior squad, this could be quite a beasting. The England squad are not lacking in talent and class but will be very much like a Baba side themselves having never played together as a group. Unlike the Babas though they will be severely lacking in big game experience. What they need to do therefore is embrace the whole thing and play with as much passion and commitment as they can summon up to show how much it means to have the shirt. Although not coaching I am sure Eddie will be watching and who knows – some of these England tyros could have the game of their lives and end up sneaking onto the plane to Japan.

SEASON FINALE FOR PREMIERSHIP DRAMA

In this season, of all seasons, it was fitting that the final round would end with plenty of late drama with two matches decided by final penalty kicks and apart from the Exeter game squeakily close scorelines across the games.

 

One of the keenest fought fixtures involved fights for the play offs with both Northampton Saints and Quins hungry to secure a win and nail that fourth place and the opportunity to dream of Twickenham.

 

Northampton Saints are a vastly improved team under Chris Boyd who has steered them majestically up the table whilst playing some gorgeous rugby. However, this weekend their lack of grunt in the engine room told and Exeter flexed their muscles to end up comfortable winners down in Sandy Park. This win should have left the door wide open for Quins to canter in if they could have scraped 2 points, they would have crept into fourth above the Saints. Wasps with nothing to play for looked enterprising and energised with the cohort of departing players including Elliott Daly and Joe Simpson saying goodbye in style. In truth Quins were so, so close to that 4th place with a final long-distance penalty kick falling agonisingly short and denying them the snatched victory and a playoff place. It has still been a good season for the London men who despite not winning a huge amount of games stiffened up their defence conceding far fewer tries than last season and thus hanging in games and piling up a significant amount of losing bonus points. Paul Gustard now must start to re-build the squad in his own image and layer on more of an attacking threat to balance out the improved defence.

 

The rest of the positions and European places were also decided with Quins and Bath picking up Top 6 finishes so entry to the Champions Cup. Sale gave themselves a sniff with the 20th place in the Cup available through a convoluted process which will need La Rochelle to finish in the top 6 in the French league to pave the way. 

 

I think it is fair to say most of us are fairly gob smacked at the plight of the Leicester Tigers. Their narrow loss to Bath condemned them to their lowest league finish sitting in 11th - something not seen since around 1938. The eternal optimism of sport means I am sure fans are now focussing on next season and with a massive clear out of players hoping the club starts to rebuild. It may be that we never see Leicester right back at the top again as so much has changed around them. Their model which was for so many years hugely successful and delivered a multitude of silverware has been surpassed by new money, new coaching structures and big signings across the whole of the league. Leicester has lost its glamour and without the chance of winning lots of trophies players are looking elsewhere for either improved terms or the chance to compete in big European games.

 

Despite a quick flurry of excitement around changes to the final top order the Premiership Semi Finals are - as expected - a re-match with Exeter v Northampton and Saracens taking on a resurgent and dangerous Gloucester at Allianz Park.

 

We all love an upset and a challenge to the top order in any sport so it would be good to see one of Saints or Gloucester pull off a tough away win. If Gloucester had been playing Exeter, then I would have given them a good chance of scattering apples as they have beaten The Chiefs in the Champions Cup pool match.  As it is the Cherry & Whites need to take on the newly crowned European champions and find a way to negate their power game. Gloucester will however travel to north London with ambition, desire and no fear knowing that they have developed under Ackerman into a top side with all sorts of weapons at their disposal. Cipriani will I am sure have been studying intently the line speed of Saracens and hatching plots to deal with it through either moving the ball wide as fast as possible or using a tactical kicking game. If you look at that Gloucester side and indeed a potential bench, then you must feel this is far from a foregone conclusion. Ackerman will be aware that their victory against Saracens at Kingsholm was during the Six Nations so this will be a bigger challenge against a slew of British & Irish Lions.  Saracens will need to summon up the same desire they displayed against Leinster to halt the west country sides momentum and will themselves have some challenges in dealing with a very threatening attack and a Gloucester team that have been steadily getting better and better.  

 

 

Exeter showed the last few games were an aberration and will feel they now have the measure of Northampton when they take them on a week later. You can see the side gelling during the game and shaking off the rustiness built up over a period when they really did have nothing to play for. I suspect Rob Baxter was pleased there was a whiff of danger to this last round fixture. A loss in Round 22 could have meant missing out on top place giving them a slightly tougher opponent in the semi final and this re focussed his players and got them back to their dynamic and powerful best.

 

In the Saints favour they may be able to finally add Dylan Hartley to the team sheet and that can only give needed strength to their pack. Their live wire and hugely influential scrum half Cobus Rienach seemed to pick up a knock so there will be mass finger crossing in the West Midlands hoping he is fit to play. How important has he been to the Saints! Is an upset on the cards here? I personally can’t see Saints being able to down Exeter unless they play a game of huge discipline to deny Chiefs the comfort factor of kicking to the 5m line for a rolling maul score. The Saints attack and their half back pairing is on fire now so nothing should be ruled out with the chance they score a bucket load of tries. You would never have backed Northampton to win twice in a row at Sandy Park so the loss last weekend to me still means they are still in the hunt.

 

The green, green grass of Twickenham awaits the winners of this coming weekend’s two games. Are we finally going to be able to say it is Gloucester’s year? See Exeter win the trophy for only the second time after coming top of the league 4 times? Watch dark horses Saints sneak up on the rails from 4th position to 1st? Or indeed witness Saracens do the double. Who’s your money on?

 

THREE STAR SARACENS DOWN LEINSTER

The Leinster players must have woken up on Sunday feeling they had been in a multiple pile up on the M1. The ferocity of this Champions Cup final was one for the ages. The sheer explosive power, physicality and energy Saracens bought to the game was in the end just too much for this top quality Leinster side.

It was a game that had me on the edge of my couch almost feeling every titanic hit and wincing at times. People flippantly talk about games as being ‘test match intensity’ but I can tell you this was a test match in all but name. Some Leinster players said it was more physical and demanding than many tests they have played which tells you all you need to know.

How often do games get talked up by over enthusiastic sports commentators and fail to deliver – well this time it was different. Quite rightly billed as the closest matched due to the two teams both being recent winners it was absorbing and enthralling. Yes it was defensive but in matches like this tries are always a rare thing. Many big finals are settled by kicking penalties and indeed last year’s Euro final was tryless. It did not mean that the teams on Saturday did not try to create space to score and we saw some dazzling footwork at times.

Trying to list the key moment in the match would take too long and most have been highlighted well by many newspaper reports. For me as a scrum nerd there was plenty for me to get my teeth into. The loss of one starting prop 30 minutes into the game is a misfortune but both? Could have been a disaster for Saracens especially as it co-ncided with a deserved yellow card for Itoje. Step up unheralded ex Jersey RFC loosehead Richard Barrington and take a bow my son. Going up against the undoubtedly world class Tadagh Furlong and holding your own plus putting in a stormer on the field was just comic book stuff.

In truth if you ask what won it for the Sarries team it came down to the team spirit which meant every one of them never faltered in their work rate or desire. The spirit of the club is epitomised by Mr Concrete himself Brad Barritt who made 28 – yes count them -28 tackles missing none. What a leader and inspiration to his team. Interesting that England do not think there is a gap in the World Cup squad for a hard-running defensive centre with leadership skills…

I know I bang on about it but team, culture whatever you call it – is so vital to success. If it wasn’t then the Barbarians or British & Irish Lions would win every single time they played. Building a club that plays for each other takes a while and this is where Saracens have got lucky in that they had a core of Academy lads all exceptionally talented who grew and developed together over the years and built unshakeable bonds. Their owner Nigel Wray wants his Saracens boys to love each other and the club which is precisely what they do. From their Instagram accounts it appears they have celebrating together nonstop in a rather old school way and I am not sure if even today Alex Goode has changed out of his playing kit!

For Leinster they will know that they could still have won this game and it was the terrible end to the first half that knocked the stuffing out of them. After half time oranges they came out like a freight train indeed playing some unbelievable rugby and upping their physicality. There were a couple of opportunities for them but the small things did not go for them and Saracens went on to take total control. No five stars then for this classy and quality team but they are still European royalty and they will know it took a monumental effort from the Londoners to wrench the crown from their head.

Can’t quite believe we are heading for the final weekend of the Premiership with unbelievably most games with something riding on them. Even though relegation is decided there are still battles for Top 2, Top 4 and Top 6. Both Exeter and Saracens will still not be quite sure who they are facing in the semi final play offs but one thing Exeter know is that they need to win to avoid Gloucester. I see Gloucester as a real threat in these play offs and whether they are at Sandy or Allianz Park they will not be there to make up the numbers. With the Premiership player of the Year Danny Cipriani leading the charge alongside an immense forward pack they will be a challenge. Eddie Jones meanwhile still seems to deem both the Prem Player of the Year and the European Player of the Year surplus to requirements.  Funny old game selection.

SCRAMBLE FOR EURO PLACES AND WHO WILL BE KINGS IN THE NORTH

After 21 gruelling rounds of Gallagher Premiership rugby the runners and riders are still not quite settled.  Five teams are still jostling for Champions Cup rugby places whilst Saints and Quins are still gunning for fourth place to secure a semi final berth.

It has been quite a season on so many levels and when you think that Harlequins could make that play off spot in 4th when they have only won about half their games it looks slightly bonkers.  

Even the Top 2 Exeter and Saracens which were comfortably ensconced in positions 1 and 2 respectively may well end up changing spots.  The big showdown between Exeter and Saracens which would have been eagerly anticipated by fans and BT Sport as a big highlight of the season became something quite different when a Sarries B team ran riot against an Exeter B team.  You can’t blame the coaches for fielding the sides they did and both have earnt the right to rest up their big guns.  Exeter perhaps had slightly more to lose as they now have to win their final game to ensure they retain top seed status and a slightly easier home semi final.

The game itself allowed the rule to be run over a group of very promising Academy lads.  Where Saracens had the edge in this game was in the forwards who included not so young Schalk Burger, Nick Isiekwe and man mountain Will Skelton.  This allowed their youngsters in the back line to shine and fly half Max Malins and centre Dom Morris caught the eye. 

Exeter’s coach Rob Baxter now has to earn his corn in deciding what team to put out at Sandy Park against Saints for the final game.  I suspect he will go for a virtually full strength side to gain meomentum following what has been for them a strange hiatus which has led to some under par performances.  Exeter I think have been biding their time and will be fully focussed and back to their best when it comes to the play offs.  We all know how good they can be and with rested players chomping at the bit I feel Saints may have a battle to nail the 4th place.

As for the Cherry & Whites they managed to get back on track with a win against Newcastle.  A win that finally condemned the Falcons to relegation.  As I have said before as much as relegation adds excitement our league is still not rich enough or big enough to allow one club each season to fall into the Championship.  It takes time to build a club, a culture and a fan base and it also takes money.  Lots of money.  We do not have sufficient money sloshing around our sport and owners do not have endless access to cash.  Giving it some thought I think possibly a home and away play off to decide if someone comes up.  If a team in the Championship has the quality to beat a Premiership team then maybe they are good enough to earn their place. 

As for Glos they just have a tricky away fixture up at Sale to negotiate before probably heading over to North London to face Saracens in the semi final.   I am really excited to see what Gloucester can do in this semi final and with most of the injured players fit and firing the teams look well matched.  Saracens have never found Gloucester easy to play and this could be a humdinger that Gloucester have every chance of winning. 

Harlequins have slipped up in their chase for the top 4 and now need a big win up at Wasps and hope Saints get nothing out of Exeter.  They also have Sale and Bath breathing down their neck and could slip to 7th if results go against them.  On the whole though I think the report card for Paul Gustard’s first season at the helm is a positive one.  Quins have sharpened up and added some physicality and defensive structure to their game which is how they find themselves in the position they are in.  it is also worth pointing out they have the highest amount of losing bonus points which demonstrates they have become much more competitive as a side.

Saints are another team who have like Quins under a new coach cleaned up their act and Chris Boyd has them playing a wonderful attacking style of rugby that is delivering results.  They won’t fear going down to Sandy Park and with lashings of youthful exuberance will definitely take the game to the Chiefs.

Leicester Tigers have stumbled home this season sitting currently in an unlikely and for them shocking 11th place.   They have a final home game which is against traditional rivals Bath to put on a big display for the loyal fans and make sure their season does not peter out with yet another loss.

Bath though still have things to play for so will go full bore and this game could go anyway.  Welford Road sadly is no longer a fortress so I am not sure the home advantage will count for much.  Bath however have been horribly inconsistent and with the quality of player they have are probably not quite where they should be.  I thought they played brilliantly last week to get the victory against Wasps.  If  they can take that form into the Tigers game and other results go their way then the Bath boys may need to put holiday plans on hold as they could be in the play offs.

 All eyes turn northwards on Saturday to  St James’  Park on Saturday for the Heineken Champions Cup Final.  Both Leinster and Saracens are already clutching fistfuls of winners medals and with the Irish side looking for an astounding 5th title this is a meeting of two rugby dynasties. 

Both teams look likely to be nearly full strength.  Mako Vunipola is supposedly out of his protective boot and Brad Barritt is hopeful for Saracens and Leinster relieved that Sean Cronin looks good to start alongside Rhys Ruddock.  The match ups are titanic  with Irish and English internationals and British & Irish Lions going up against each other. 

The bookmakers cannot separate the two teams which tells you everything and means neither side can claim the underdog status.  Looking at likely line ups I feel Leinster have the edge in the front row, centres and back row.  Their all action starting front row with tighthead Tadgh Furlong and partner Cian Healey combines raw power with technical skills and the back row with Aussie Scott Fardy tearing it up alongside a revitalised Sean O’Brien and coming man Jack Conan overall looks stronger than Sarries. 

If Brad Barritt does not recover then Leinster hands down win the centre battle.  Henshaw and Ringrose are a class pairing who both looked immense in the semi final against Toulouse. For Saracens the back three, locks and half backs edge their opponents but we all know teams are more than the sum of their parts and tactics, physicality, desire and decision making will play a massive role.  It is going to come down to small margins, one missed tackle, a soft penalty, a bounce of the ball, a high tackle.  In these big games nerves can play a part albeit these two sides have mostly been there seen it and done it.  However in a very tight game the wobblies can creep in and seeing England implode on a few occasions with many of the Sarries lads involved it may give Leinster hope.  Saracens on the other hand will have plenty of players remembering a certain day in Dublin during the Six Nations when Ireland were taken apart.  So whoever you are supporting or if you are a neutral this is a game to relish.  Let’s hope these two do not cancel each other out with their defences and we get to see one of the great European finals.

FINAL SCRAMBLE FOR TOP 4

 

The drama of the Premiership eased slightly last weekend particularly on the relegation front. It looks like Newcastle Falcons are doomed and you just must feel for the club and fans. To go from 4th last year to relegation is a hard one to swallow. With in-form Gloucester lying in wait on Saturday it is hard to see the Falcons getting the points to stave off the final blow. Should they however somehow, someway find their form and put in a massive performance to overturn Gloucester and then Leicester lose away to Quins - put the kettle on and settle down for another dramatic weekend.

 

In truth this was overall genuinely one tough season with Falcons still not mathematically relegated and Leicester Tigers in an unbelievable 11th place. The tightness of the league was shown by the way teams who have won around half their games are still in with top four chances and European qualification. Exeter and Saracens have taken points off nearly everyone and all the other teams have taken points off each other.

 

Some might think it is a pointless scramble for top 4 when Exeter and Saracens look like they have it sewn up but dig a little deeper into results and you can see there were plenty of tight games only just won by the top 2 and they have both lost games they were expected to win. Now there are still about 4 teams who could grab that final playoff spot, so this is an intriguing set of fixtures coming up.

 

When it comes to the Twickenham final for me Gloucester look best placed for an assault on the established duo and their probable semi final against Saracens is going to be something special. It is lip smacking to see that Glos pack up against a nearly all England 8 and of course let us not forget the Cipriani v Farrell match up. On paper Sarries may have a slight edge but Gloucester need to believe and go there with heads switched on and prepared to be very physical. With the likes of Mostert, Marais, Ackerman, Slater and Ben Morgan at their best they have weapons a plenty in the pack and of course some classy and pacy backs. The away loss to Worcester would not have been in the plan for the Cherry & Whites and it was an uncharacteristic display. You have to credit Worcester however who still had survival to play for and put a massive amount into the game coming away deserved winners.

 

A lot will depend of course on the outcome of the European Champions Cup final as to what motivation Saracens will have for the semi-final playoff and also of course whether they are hit with any significant injuries. They play Exeter this Saturday in what should have been a massive show down but is now likely, at least from the Saracens side, to feature more of a second string.

 

Exeter by their own standards are wobbling but I think it is understandable. I often talk about the psychological side of rugby as being critical. Let’s be honest rugby hurts. A lot. To physically get yourself in the right state to go out and smash into other human beings with real intensity needs something at stake. Exeter has been comfortably into a home semi final for weeks now and that is tough for the players to find any motivation. For their game against Quins at Sandy Park they started like a train playing some sublime stuff but just could not keep up that intensity and fair play to Quins their scrum and set piece was awesome and they came right back in to nearly snatch an away win. I personally loved the reaction from Quins boss Paul Gustard when asked about an ‘unlikely’ away win. Guzzie snapped back at the reporter that he did not view Quins as the underdogs, and he believed they were just as good as Exeter. Good for him. The leader board says differently but what great motivation for his team when the boss tells the world you are as good as anyone in the league.

 

Come semi final time coach Rob Baxter will need to find a way to get his players back in warrior mode to make sure they are fired up for the two games that really, really matter at the end of a long season. Who will be their visitors remains to be seen with Northampton Saints looking like the likely candidates? What is notable however is that in this penultimate round of Premiership fixtures most of the games still have something riding on them. Even if this league did not have relegation with 12 competitive teams fighting for Home semis, Top 4 and Top 6 I think we can forget about too many dead rubbers.

 

Next season London Irish make their expected move back up to the Prem and congratulations to them. It is a very hard slog playing in the Championship with around 6 sides who will give you a hugely competitive game plus many who will just be big powerful units who will make you work for your points. Given the quality of the guys Irish are signing up the Premiership looks like it will continue to be one of the toughest rugby leagues in the world.

 

Final shout out to the women’s game with the Tyrells 15’s league really establishing itself as a top-quality product. The final was played out on Saturday up at Franklins Gardens with Saracens taking on Harlequins and the game was a brilliant advert for women’s rugby. Some absolute quality on show and a good size crowd there to watch. It is the fastest growing part of our game and if you have not caught much women’s rugby give it a try.

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