Founder and editor of Crashball Rugby
Saracens vs Wasps
In the last round of the regular season, Dai Young’s men managed to overcome play-off rivals Newcastle Falcons for the right to finish in third place instead of fourth. A position in which Young revealed to Crashball Rugby the previous week that he felt his side should justifiably finish given their endeavours this season. The reward for Young’s men? A trip to Saracens… joy.
By Young's own admission during yesterday’s press day at Broadstreet RFC, Saracens' biggest strength is also Wasps' most significant weakness, the ability to ramp up the tempo in the final 20 minutes and see out a win. Saracens have not conceded a single point in the last half hour of their previous four games, such is the intensity of Mark McCall’s ruthless game plan. With the majority, if not all of Sarries big names back to full fitness, Wasps are facing a daunting task this weekend.
Dai Young also conceded that an 80-minute performance has eluded his team since Christmas and that they would have to unlock a ‘legendary Saracens defence’ with their obvious attacking capabilities. The Wasps boss backed his side to the hilt, leaving no room for doubt over the Coventry-based side's capacity for attacking rugby, highlighting the impressive form of both Danny Cipriani and Willie le Roux so far this season.
Newly recalled England fly-half, Cipriani, may be trading the Ricoh for Kingsholm this summer, but for another week, at least, he will be the man at the centre of Wasps' attacking matrix alongside Dan Robson also called up to the England squad to face South Africa. With Jimmy Gopperth, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Willie le Roux - to name but a few - all fit and in contention, last year's finalists are as well equipped as any other to tackle the Wolf Pack defence.
Wasps also welcome back England’s barnstorming, offloading number eight Nathan Hughes, who has made a pleasantly quick recovery from what was once feared to have been a season-ending knee injury. Along with a pack built for a fast-paced game, Wasps will have to pick up a flying start if they are to hold off the inevitable Sarries surge in the final quarter.
Saracens themselves will look to make the most of a pack brimming with England internationals, British and Irish Lions and mammoth-like carriers, all of whom benefit from supreme fitness levels. With Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell orchestrating a backline including the likes of Sean Maitland, Liam Williams and Brad Barritt, we can expect ruthless efficiency from the home side.
A significant challenge for Wasps, but if they can put on a season-best performance on the firm and fast artificial surface at Allianz Park, they may just have enough to outscore the former Premiership and European champions.
Easier said than done.
Exeter Chiefs vs Newcastle Falcons
The second and last of our play-offs this weekend sees two Premiership Coach of the Year nominees go head-to-head, with Dean Richards’ Falcons looking to topple Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
Two teams with similar rags to riches stories are likely the most appealing teams for the neutral fan to support. With both teams exhibiting some exceptional rugby at times this season, there should be no shortage of entertainment this weekend.
In similar fashion to Saracens, Exeter ended their regular season in thunderous form, comfortably dispatching Harlequins, Sale Sharks, London Irish and Gloucester in a manner truly befitting the title of champions. With a host of England squad members and more than a few international fringe players, Chiefs are in the perfect position to tackle Falcons and qualify for a third consecutive Premiership final.
The added dimension young Joe Simmonds has added to Exeter’s repertoire from fly-half paired with the Test quality of Wallaby Nic White at nine seems to have taken the Chiefs to the next level. The duo's cocktail of youth and experience, pragmatism and flair has produced some exceptional victories in captivating displays this year.
With Simmonds alongside older brother and newly-capped England international, Sam, at number eight and many more Premiership stars beside, Exeter fans will have need for minimal cause for doubt this week.
Dean Richards and co will have dusted off the magnifying glass over the last two weeks when searching for a weakness in the Exeter game plan. Newcastle will likely rely on their pack's mobility, the distribution skills of centres Josh Matavesi and Chris Harris and the tremendous, game-changing attacking threat of Pacific Island duo Sinoti Sinoti and Vereniki Goneva out on the wings.
With the experienced figures of Rob Vickers, Scott Lawson and Ally Hogg all retiring at the end of the season, Falcons will not be short of motivation this Saturday. The three club veterans will not only want to end their careers on a high, but the teams around them will want to send them off in style as reward for years of service.
As with Wasps, the hurdle Newcastle must overcome to reach this year's Twickenham final is substantial. However, both teams have proven their capacity for wonderous, form-defying performances at times. Should events go their way this weekend, we may be treated to a rare semi-final victory from a travelling side.
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