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How the Premiership’s most bonkers play-off race will finish

How the Premiership's most bonkers play-off race will finish
Can Marcus Smith (centre) drag Harlequins into the play-offs? - Getty Images/David Rogers

“The run-in” is how Premiership marketeers have branded the denouement of this disjointed yet compelling campaign. In truth, that feels like too sedate an image. With three regular rounds of the fixture schedule remaining, we face a frenzied scramble for the play-offs.

Mathematically, eight of the 10 sides are still in with a shout. Realistically, six probably remain in contention. Either way, the business end will be immensely exciting.

1 Northampton Saints (54 points)

If they were a batsman, Saints would be seeing it like a beach ball. And, having lost in two consecutive semi-finals on the road, they will be focused on finishing first or second to get a play-off at cinch Stadium. That job is almost done, and could even be rubber-stamped this coming weekend depending on results around the country. Their five-point buffer is well deserved and putting 40 on Leicester Tigers with a rotated squad should allow them to be at full strength, or close to, for Harlequins at Twickenham. Win there, and Phil Dowson should be able to manage his resources for rounds 17 and 18, which follow the Leinster showdown. He will not want to go to Bath needing anything at all.

Predicted run-in results: Two wins, over Harlequins and Gloucester, before front-liners are wrapped in cotton wool for round 18.

2 Bath (49 points)

Holding off Exeter Chiefs was an endorsement of Bath’s squad depth and the tactical clarity instilled by Johann van Graan and coaches such as JP Ferreira and Lee Blackett. Charlie Ewels was excellent, reinforcing the quality among the back-five forwards. As impressive as Orlando Bailey was, with Ben Spencer managing matters from scrum-half and Max Ojomoh continuing to impress, injuries to Finn Russell and Cameron Redpath will be felt at some stage. Van Graan is hoping that both will be available again before the end of the season, which could be the difference between Bath making the Premiership final and bowing out before that stage.

Predicted run-in results: Undone by Saracens before righting the ship with wins over Newcastle and Northampton to secure third.

3 Saracens (47 points)

A mixed display against Gloucester’s green line-up encapsulated a peculiar title defence. Saracens have been unconvincing, either for entire matches or spells within them, for most of this season. Clearly, though, nobody can navigate the business end with as much know-how. And they are acutely aware that a home semi-final is extremely valuable. Waving off Owen Farrell and other leavers will spur them and The Rec on Friday night, against a banged-up yet robust Bath, represents a gauge of whether they can hold things together strongly enough to mount a realistic challenge. The trouble for Mark McCall is that in a few other big challenges this season, Saracens have fallen short.

Predicted run-in results: Three from three to sneak into second, even if that could be considered blind faith based on form. Out of the Champions Cup, they have no need to rotate.

4 Bristol Bears (45 points)

While he stayed measured in the wake of dismantling Newcastle Falcons, Pat Lam must feel as though his Bears are charging down-hill. They are kicking far less and returning to the intricate, multi-faceted phase-play that became their trademark in the era of Charles Piutau and Semi Radradra. Signings such as Gabriel Oghre, Benhard Janse van Rensburg and Max Malins have all settled. A “fearless” mind-set has inspired a trot of five straight Premiership wins. And while there are caveats – the hot trot has included victories over rotated Northampton and Bath teams as well as the lowly pair of Gloucester and Falcons – Bristol’s fate is in their own hands. Win and they are in.

Predicted run-in results: Edging Tigers, by any means necessary, would likely present two shots at securing the top four, with Saracens and Harlequins. Revenge for ‘Bristanbul’ – the 2021 semi-final in which Bristol’s hearts were broken by Harlequins? That would be some story.

5 Harlequins (44 points)

Losing with two bonus points in Salford, serving up spills and thrills with a comeback that kept alive their top-four push, sums up Harlequins quite neatly. Who knows which way their rollercoaster ride will twist next? They do enjoy playing at Twickenham and host Northampton there on Saturday afternoon. Both clubs have Champions Cup semi-finals the weekend after and squads full of England internationals enduring a gruelling year. The Exeter trip in round 17 looks extremely tough, with a possible shoot-out against Bristol the next weekend rounding off a brutal sequence.

Predicted run-in results: Harlequins have done extremely well to steady themselves after a catastrophic loss to Saracens in Tottenham. Now, though, they have a mightily difficult domestic run with a Toulouse trip sprinkled in. Any slip-up will cost dear. While they will not lack belief, or tries, going unbeaten might be beyond them.

6 Sale Sharks (42 points)

Alongside Bristol, Sale are the team that cause you to revisit your perceptions of this season. It has felt like they have been considerably more clunky than last season, with long-term injuries, such as the one to Dan du Preez, proving disruptive. And yet, the win over Harlequins was their ninth; only four clubs have more. A meagre return of six bonus points – only Newcastle Falcons have fewer – has dragged them back. Their tally of 44 tries is only superior to the bottom two sides. With Bevan Rodd, Ben Curry, Raffi Quirke and Joe Carpenter all fit again, Sale can cause a stir.

Predicted run-in results: Victories over Newcastle, in the Steve Diamond derby, and Leicester should keep them in contention until the final round, where Saracens might well oust them in a repeat of last season’s decider.

How the Premiership's most bonkers play-off race will finish
Sale's Raffi Quirke (centre) celebrates scoring a try against Harlequins - Getty Images/Jan Kruger

7 Exeter Chiefs (40 points)

Rob Baxter suggested that a Champions Cup thrashing in Toulouse was a harsh yet fair reflection of where his young team are. The loss to Bath on Saturday evening, in which Alfie Barbeary and the rest of Van Graan’s jackallers stole six rucks, underlined that Chiefs remain a work in progress, albeit a promising one. Perhaps they are tiring, too. The play-offs might be out of reach but, wherever they finish up, Baxter will be rightly proud because they have laid sturdy foundations.

Predicted run-in results: They must be flawless from here to stand a chance of extending their season and this weekend demonstrated the kinks that have to be ironed out. Two wins are possible, and Exeter could derail Harlequins’ season on May 11, yet a top-four berth is probably gone now.

8 Leicester Tigers (39 points)

They need snookers and then some, with Dan McKellar conceding that he will prioritise performance over results for the rest of a frustrating campaign. A revamp of their coaching team, in the wake of Steve Borthwick shifting most of his staff to England, hit a snag with Alan Dickens’ absence. Compounding that, injuries have made it tough to enable consistency in selection. Solomone Kata’s red card precipitated a late slump on Saturday, but, in truth, Leicester appear significantly inferior to Saints at the moment.

Predicted run-in results: McKellar needs an immediate response at home but Bristol should be confident of continuing a sparkling run and are capable of doing so. Sale away is a tough task right now, so it could be that Tigers make do with a one-from-three finish by overturning Exeter.

Predicted top four

  1. Northampton Saints

  2. Saracens

  3. Bath

  4. Bristol Bears

Barring a bizarre slump, Saints will finish at the summit. Below that is a captivating race. This prediction would pit Northampton against Bristol and Saracens against Bath for the semi-finals. Neutrals would not complain.

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