Chiefs to beat Sara­cens but Wasps for ti­tle

Bren­dan Gallagher sets the scene for next week’s Premier­ship semi-fi­nals ...and picks his win­ners

The Rugby Paper - - Feature -

THERE’s no guar­an­tee a crack­ing reg­u­lar sea­son will pro­duce two semi­fi­nal play-offs to re­mem­ber next weekend but, frankly, it will be a ma­jor sur­prise if we aren’t treated to a cou­ple of com­pelling and spec­tac­u­lar ties. The stars seem to have aligned per­fectly.

Down at Sandy Park, first up, we see a re­peat of last year’s fi­nal when the Chiefs got badly left in the blocks and trailed 23-6 at half-time hav­ing strug­gled to mount a mean­ing­ful at­tack in the first 40 min­utes.

It’s a mas­sive trib­ute to their tenac­ity that Ex­eter man­aged to stem the flow and nar­row the lead to just three points af­ter the break be­fore Alex Goode even­tu­ally fin­ished the job for Sar­ries 28-20 with a late try, but the Chiefs can­not al­low Sara­cens to make another fly­ing start. Mark McCall’s team are re­morse­less front run­ners, very few teams drag them back if they go ten points or more be­hind.

Some­how Ex­eter must match the huge phys­i­cal­ity Sara­cens will bring to bear. We have en­joyed the Chiefs won­der­ful han­dling and con­ti­nu­ity play all sea­son but this game sim­ply can’t be won with­out some ma­jor grunt from their tight for­wards. You can’t beat Sara­cens with­out it, even Mun­ster, in front of a packed house at the Aviva last month, couldn’t out­mus­cle Sar­ries up front.

Now is the time for Luke CowanDickie to step up another level in the front row along with new Eng­land re­cruit Harry Wil­liams and Ben Moon. Ex­eter have good strength in the front row with Jack Ye­an­dle, Carl Rim­mer and Tomas Fran­cis also con­tend­ing for those start­ing spots but have they got any one com­bi­na­tion that can go toe to toe with Sara­cens for 80 min­utes?

Ditto in the se­cond row where Ge­off Par­ling is still play­ing well and read­ing op­po­si­tion throws like a book. Par­ling is likely to pack down with ei­ther Ol­lie Atkins or Dave Den­nis and to­gether they will have a ma­jor job on their hands com­bat­ing Maro Itoje and a fresh Ge­orge Kruis, who is be­gin­ning to hit his straps again af­ter in­jury.

Com­bat­ing Billy Vu­nipola will be a ma­jor is­sue – of course it will – and although Thomas Wal­drom is en­joy­ing his usual con­sis­tent, con­struc­tive try scor­ing sea­son, the onus will prob­a­bly be on the mus­cu­lar Dave Ew­ers, another player re­turn­ing from long term in­jury, to en­gage the Eng­land No.8 head to head. The vet­eran Kai Horts­mann, en­joy­ing a won­der­ful In­dian sum­mer of a sea­son, is another who might come into play here.

If the Chiefs can get a foothold in the game then they will be in busi­ness be­cause no side is more pa­tient with the hard-earned ball they win and ev­ery­body in the back divi­sion is both a cre­ator and fin­isher. The onus never falls on one player to pro­duce the goods.

Par­tic­u­larly en­joy­ing the clash should be Henry Slade. For a player of his tal­ents Slade, has been spar­ingly used by Eng­land in the last two or three sea­sons, mainly down to Owen Far­rell’s pre-em­i­nence and pen­chant for also play­ing 10 and12 which Slade does with equal fa­cil­ity.

It’s a prob­lem in terms of Slade get­ting his break at Test level but he is an out­stand­ing player and Satur­day would be a good time to shine and per­haps con­vince Ed­die Jones that he has fi­nally earned a start ahead of Ge­orge Ford when Eng­land ven­ture down to Ar­gentina next month.

Ol­lie Wood­burn and James Short mean­while have been among the form wing­men all sea­son and would have ev­ery right to won­der why they won’t be on the plane to Ar­gentina. Wood­burn, in par­tic­u­lar, rarely fails to leave his mark on a game ei­ther in at­tack or de­fence and although he has noth­ing to prove to those who watch Ex­eter

reg­u­larly, another out­stand­ing per­for­mance might make those who haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion sit up.

Later in the day Wasps tackle Le­ices­ter in front of another ca­pac­ity crowd at the Ri­coh with hope­fully no kick-off de­lays this time. Wasps have been high-fly­ing all sea­son and, although they did stum­ble just a bit to­wards the end, that em­phatic vic­tory over Sara­cens – al­beit an un­der­strength Sar­ries – saw them get their mojo back.

Le­ices­ter, in con­trast, have been in the trenches most of the sea­son des­per­ately try­ing to fight their way into the top four. Be­set with in­juries to key play­ers, and go­ing through a tran­si­tional stage any­way, Tigers haven’t had to seek their trou­bles and are now on their third head coach since Christ­mas. To bor­row, a tad, from Os­car Wilde, to lose one coach might be con­sid­ered un­for­tu­nate but two is care­less.

In such cir­cum­stances reach­ing the play-offs has been some achieve­ment although did any­body se­ri­ously doubt that Tigers would find a bit of form to­wards the end? They al­ways do, it’s in their DNA. They learned years ago that Premier­ship Rugby is a marathon not a sprint. This is the club that reached nine con­sec­u­tive fi­nals be­tween 2005 and 2013.

Po­ten­tially there are some re­ally nice match ups; Kurt­ley Beale v Telusa Veainu and Wil­lie le Roux against fel­low Spring­bok JP Pi­etersen, but the most im­por­tant of all might be be­tween two of the for­got­ten men of English rugby at fly-half – Fred­die Burns and Danny Cipri­ani.

Burns last ap­peared for Eng­land in the first Test in New Zealand in 2014 when he played par­tic­u­larly well in a nar­row de­feat while you have to go back to 2008 since Cipri­ani was al­lowed a Test start by Eng­land.

Tigers are bat­tle-hard­ened, they have built some de­cent mo­men­tum and the en­tire club will be pulling like never be­fore be­hind skip­per Tom Youngs. Ex­pect a big emo­tional per­for­mance from Le­ices­ter but in the cold light of day they don’t pos­sess the pack of old and if the Wasps for­wards achieve par­ity – which they should – their backs should have enough class and strike power to get the job done and pos­si­bly in some style.

PIC­TURES: Getty Images

Lethal weapon: Chris­tian Wade Right: Dave Ew­ers

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