The penultimate round of the 2018/19 Premiership season is ahead of us. With a new name sponsor, an England tour to South Africa looming, we preview round 21 of the Aviva Premiership.
Leicester vs Newcastle Falcons
Friday evening- 7:45 kick-off - BT Sport 1
Fifth hosts fourth in one of the most influential games of the weekend, with Newcastle looking to stave off the challenge of Leicester, Gloucester and Sale for the fourth playoff spot while attempting to make up ground on Wasps who stand only two points ahead in third place.
Leicester come off the back of severe disappointment at Welford Road last time out, throwing away their previous week's form to go down to bitter rivals Saints.
The Falcons head south after losing their Challenge Cup semi-final to Gloucester last Friday and with the returning wing pairing of Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti, will be hungry to challenge for some silverware at the end of their most successful season for over a decade.
Toby Flood will be a key absentee from the Newcastle backline while Leicester face the prospect of the return to fitness of Manu Tuilagi. With the Lazarus-like comeback of Ben Youngs last weekend, Matt O'Connor may be welcoming a first choice backline with George Ford, Matt Toomua, Jonny May and Telusa Veainu all looking to make amends for the Saints result.
Dean Richards' Falcons have enjoyed the more impressive and consistent season and will be fired up with the prospect of finishing the season in the top four. Unless Leicester can step-up two or three levels this week, Newcastle look favourites to continue their path to an away semi-final.
Worcester Warriors vs Harlequins
Saturday - 3 pm kick-off - Not televised
Our first Saturday game sees the clash between two teams with little else to fight for other than pride at this point in the season. Worcester can be thankful two last-minute tries against Wasps a fortnight ago presented a healthier looking scoreboard than their performance would suggest. Worcester are heading into the final two rounds of the season in poor form and are unlikely to be concerned by the threat of relegation despite sitting in 11th place.
Harlequins' fall in recent times is well documented and back-to-back losses against London Irish and Gloucester in such depressing manner will have left fans with little hope for the rest of their season. Senior players such as Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown will be demanding a reaction this weekend after no lack of desire in an inaccurate display at Kingsholm last time out.
Donnacha O'Callaghan's final game at Sixways before his retirement from playing will give the Warriors an edge that may help them rise to an emotional level on par with Quins' and could well see them put away a West London side in dire straits and away from home.
Worcester would be the betting man's choice, but I think Harlequins are going to reduce their error rate enough to take the victory this weekend and look to see John Kingston's time with the club ended on a positive note.
Gloucester vs Bath
Saturday - 3 pm kick-off - BT Sport 2
Any other year, this fixture would likely be our game of the week, but with Bath in disarray at current and Gloucester on the charge for a top-four finish, we may be seeing one-way traffic at Kingsholm this weekend.
With the Shed in full voice we will undoubtedly still enjoy the same levels of aggression and rivalry on the pitch and if all goes well for Todd Blackadder at Farleigh House this week, we may even be treated to a spirited fightback from a prideful Bath side desperate to end their season on a high.
Gloucester will be the clear favourites but their opponents boast a side brimming with international quality and should they manage to find a way of clicking, could well put on a performance their fans so badly deserve this season.
As much as we may hope, a Bath fightback does seem unlikely and given Gloucester's momentum under South African boss Johann Ackermann, you'd expect the Cherry and Whites to take the bragging rights of the latest edition of this West Country derby.
Exeter Chiefs vs Sale Sharks
Saturday - 3 pm kick-off - Not televised
Comfortable table-toppers Exeter host a side with every chance of finishing in the top four. Despite their ups and down over the last two or three years, Sale will be on the charge for their first playoff qualification for twelve years.
Through a mixture of injuries and bans, the Sharks backline will be stripped of James O'Connor, Will Addison, Mark Jennings, Denny Solomona and Mike Haley, and while their pack is regularly coming out on top, Sale will be up against it at Sandy Park. A backline stripped of such a significant number of first and second choice players will likely see Steve Diamonds' men struggle to keep pace with the Chiefs on their home turf.
Exeter themselves are ramping up towards the end of the season and enjoying near 100% squad fitness. The reigning champions are looking a tremendously difficult hurdle to overcome with the new kid on the block - Joe Simmonds - bringing an attacking dimension to the backline club stalwart Gareth Steenson could not.
Like a runaway train carrying nothing but props, it's tough to see Chiefs' momentum being stopped before reaching their final destination, a home semi-final in May.
Wasps vs Northampton Saints
Saturday - 3 pm kick-off - On BT Sport 1
Both sides at the Ricoh Arena this weekend will take to the pitch with morale-boosting victories to their back and despite their contrast in success so far this season, will both be going hammer and tong in the final televised fixture of the weekend.
Wasps were in full swing last time out against Worcester, with many of their big names hitting their straps at the perfect time of the season. The Springbok pairing of Juan de Jongh and Willi le Roux were at their best in a Wasps jersey in round 20 and with Elliot Daly, Dan Robson and Danny Cipriani all keeping the Wasps machine well oiled, the home side should be ruling the roost this week. Famous last words.
Saints themselves should be taking the confidence of a first win at Welford Road in eleven years to Coventry this weekend, but more importantly, will be remarkably determined to put in a showing in tribute to their fallen comrade Rob Horne. The Wallaby's immediate retirement due to nerve damage in his right arm has shaken the entire rugby world and only a fool would bet against a Saints fightback this Sunday.
This fixture should produce plenty of emotion and competitive edge, with both sides fighting for either playoff qualification or sheer pride. The form books suggest a heavy Wasps victory, but we can expect a competitive matchup in the weekend's final game.
London Irish vs Saracens
Sunday - 3pm kick-off - Not televised
The clash at the Madejski Stadium is likely to be the most obvious foregone conclusion of the weekend. Saracens - like Exeter - are building up terrifying steam since being knocked out of the Champions Cup and London Irish all but nailed on for relegation.
Before a 40-point loss against the Chiefs in the last round, Irish were enjoying the best run of form of their campaign and were looking to be in with an outside chance to challenge Worcester for the risk of relegation. However, even the impact of South African duo Piet van Zyl and Franco van Der Merwe on the pitch under the tutelage of newly instated Grand Slam winning double act Les Kiss and Declan Kidney, their penultimate round will most likely feature another heavy loss.
Mark McCall has the ability to take a side boasting seven British and Irish Lions and fourteen full internationals in his starting lineup. Even if the former Ulsterman decides to rest many of his big names against the league's bottom-placed side ahead of the playoffs, London Irish are going to have to produce their season's greatest performances to keep pace.