By Olly Santini
After four rounds of Premiership rugby since its resumption last month, there are intriguing battles shaping up all over the table as the 2019/20 season reaches its denouement.
Exeter Chiefs are unbeaten since the restart, and have earned themselves a healthy 15-point lead at the summit. They now look guaranteed to finish the season top of the table, which will earn them a favourable home tie in the play-off semi-finals.
Below them, Sale, Bristol, Wasps and Bath are all in the hunt for the second home semi-final berth, and a spot in the remaining top four places. Sale and Bristol have lost much of the advantage they held over the teams below, with both struggling to rediscover their pre-lockdown form. Both remain in second and third, but are now within striking distance of the teams below them.
Wasps and Bath have both won three out of four since the restart. The pair faced off in a crucial showdown at the Rec last weekend, which Wasps won despite four first half injuries. This put them in fourth place with five rounds of fixtures remaining, though they face a tough run-in that includes games against Saracens, Exeter and Bristol.
Today Bath travel to Quins, and will be desperate not to lose to a team that, if victorious, would move within touching distance of them.
Quins and Gloucester are catching Northampton in sixth place, who have a solitary win at London Irish to show for themselves since the restart. Gloucester and Quins both have two wins, with both clinching big victories last weekend at home to Leicester and Northampton respectively. They meet in Round 20 at Kingsholm, in a fixture that will likely render the loser out of the top four race.
Both have forgiving run-ins, but would probably need five wins from five to have any chance of making the top four. As of today Northampton are still above both Quins and Gloucester, but haven’t managed to find any semblance of form since lockdown when they resumed the season in fourth place. They’re now seven points off the top four and, unless they can find a way to win soon, their season will be over.
All of Quins, Gloucester and Northampton seem certain to finish as the top eight teams that will qualify for next season’s modified Champions Cup. Below this, there is a battle between Leicester, London Irish and Worcester to avoid finishing in 11th place, and as the team that would have been relegated had it not been for Saracens’ points deduction.
With zero wins to their name London Irish have looked particularly weak since the restart, while Leicester and Worcester have each managed one win from four.
Disgraced Saracens would be sat comfortably in second place without their 105-point deduction, and are gearing towards a run at their Champions Cup defence, with a mouth-watering away quarter-final against Leinster to look forward to on 19th September.
Exeter should also be able to make a run at their first European Cup, given their comfortable buffer in first place. They will look forward to a home quarter-final against Northampton – a team they beat at home by 50 points in the league – followed by a home semi-final if victorious.
Come the end of the regular season, however, they will have to maintain their current form if they are to secure their second Premiership title. Otherwise they risk losing out to one of the other three play-off sides, who you feel will fight them to the bitter end.
Prediction (1st-12th): Exeter, Sale, Wasps, Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Harlequins, Northampton, Worcester, Leicester, London Irish, Saracens.
Image: bixentro via Creative Commons.