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The fight for the play offs – previews, permutations & predictions for the final round of the Aviva Premiership

The final weekend of the 2014 Aviva Premiership league season is all about the battle for the top four, and therefore the play offs.

The standings so far read like this:

Pos

Team

P

W

D

L

BP

Points

1

Saracens

21

19

0

2

9

85 (Q)

2

Northampton Saints

21

15

2

4

9

73 (q)

3

Leicester Tigers

21

14

2

5

9

69 (q)

4

Bath

21

14

2

5

6

66

5

Harlequins

21

14

0

7

7

63

Saracens are guaranteed to finish top and therefore will have a home semi final against whoever finishes fourth, while Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers are both guaranteed to finish in the top four but their exact position is as yet undecided.

Saints can finish no lower than third but will be desperate to hold onto second place to guarantee a home semi final, while Leicester can finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th, so a setting out with all guns blazing for victory at Welford Road against Saracens.

The final play off place is still up for grabs though and will be decided by what is effectively now a ‘4th place play off’ at the Twickenham Stoop between Bath and Harlequins. It is a winner takes all fixture, where the winner will seal the final play off spot.

Bath currently hold that position and a win could see them go third if Leicester lose to Saracens, while Harlequins’ best hope is 4th place and an away semi final against Saracens.

It looks likely that Leicester will claim victory against Saracens at Welford Road. The Tigers have named a full strength side, while Saracens have rested many of their biggest names, safe in the knowledge that they have already qualified top and have no need to show Leicester their hand. Not to mention the fact that they have the small matter of a Heineken Cup final to stay fit for.

Tigers will need to be on their game though, this will be a motivated Saracens side as the players are playing to force their way in for these championship fixtures.

One player worth looking out for is Saracens’ Maro Itoje. Itoje has been one of the stars of England’s U20s side this season and the former Harrow pupil starts at 6 for Saracens tomorrow. His fellow U20 internationals, Nick Tompkins and Hayden Stringer, are on the bench and are equally worthy of casting an interested eye over.

Assuming that Leicester wins that, the pressure is on Northampton Saints to do the business against London Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens in order to guarantee second place.

For Wasps though this is a similar game to Saracens’ fixture. Wasps are guaranteed seventh place and a play off for a European Rugby Championship place against Stade Francais later this month. They have therefore rested a few of the more familiar faces in preparation for that, meaning that it will be a surprise if Saints fail to pick up the victory that they require.

There is no such resting of players in the Harlequins v Bath game at the Stoop though.  With Leicester and Northampton both likely to pick up victories this really is likely to be a clash for 4th and an away semi final with Saracens, and while many in London might be flocking to the Stoop’s noisier neighbour for the Marriot London 7s, the Harlequins faithful will be packing out their home ground for this one.

Without wishing to downgrade any of the other fixtures this weekend, this is the one that will have rugby fans across the country glued to their TVs, radios, and computers.

Rhiannon Chandler-Day previews this one for us:

“I’d say there is nobody that would want us in the top four, because when we get the bit between our teeth, we’re a pretty good side,” says Harlequins’ Director of Rugby, Conor O’Shea.

On the back of the Harlequins’ one point win over the Exeter Chiefs last weekend, it’s somewhat of a psychological cushion for captain Chris Robshaw and his team mates, knowing they’ll run out to the roar of The Stoop on Saturday in Round 22 of the Aviva Premiership.

The belief that the Harlequins can obtain a top four place has been soaring ever since they crushed the Leicester pack, 24-20 in Round 20. The atmosphere that night was electric and even O’Shea said after the game: “I have never heard the Stoop like that… it was absolutely rocking”

The desire to dream big has paid off so far. If they keep their eyes on the prize and the 16th man is in full voice again, then we could see a big win.

If that wasn’t enough to crank up the intensity, a few weeks ago O’Shea had made it very clear that his side would fight until the bitter end; “We would love it to come down to us playing Bath in that last game but we’ll keep on playing the way we are.”

Your wish has now been granted Mr O’Shea. So, can your boys beat this determined Bath side?

Well, the London team has gone from strength to strength, although life hasn’t been made easy by the adversity the Quins have faced with injury. But they’ve fast-tracked the development of some of their younger players, with the likes of Kyle Sinckler and Ben Botica stepping up to make a huge impact in the squad.

Harlequins deserve recognition for their tenacity and strength of character after what looked liked a flurry of frustration and a rocky start to the season. They lost their first two games on home turf, but look where they are now.

Looking at it, there are more than a handful of players in the Harlequins squad who are game changers. There are the influential players like Nick Easter, the reliable players like Dave Ward and Mike Brown, the grafters like Luke Wallace and Jordan Turner-Hall, the tempo-raisers like Danny Care and Sam Smith. I could go on. 

They have all contributed to ensuring they’ve reached this crucial climax fixture on Saturday and as O’Shea has previously mentioned; “The boys are buzzing. They’re loving their rugby.”

But are Bath quietly confident?  

Mike Ford’s men beat Quins at The Rec back in December 14-3, so there is no doubt this “winner takes all” encounter will be a feisty fixture.

And after Bath’s draw against second-placed Northampton last Friday night, Ford said:

“I’m really delighted we showed we are more than capable of performing against one of the top two sides. We feel it was the perfect preparation going into our next game, which now feels like a cup final.”

“Quins away is an exciting challenge and one we are very much looking forward to. We believe we are a top four side and we aim to prove that on Saturday. We’ll prepare ourselves in the best way possible and make sure we come out all guns blazing come kick-off.”

It may ultimately come down to inaccuracies and missed opportunities that will separate these two teams when they meet at the sold-out Stoop on Saturday. Passion and pride are at stake and although it was always going to be titanic tussle, the prize now makes it so much more.

It’s crunch time. Who will qualify for that all important semi-final spot? Let us know what you think via @FifteenRugbyXV

Fixtures & Predictions (all kick off at 15.15 on Saturday):

Harlequins v Bath (Live on BT Sport) – Almost too close to call. The bulk of this Harlequins squad have won the league before, while Bath have not won anything for a long time, that experience may just count for Quins. That said, Bath have played some glorious rugby this year. With rain predicted though, they may not get to show it. Harlequins by a score.

Leicester Tigers v Saracens – Saracens have sent out a second string in effect for this, and while they will doubtless be competitive it would be a real upset to see this experienced Leicester side blow it at home. Leicester by more than 7.

London Irish v Sale Sharks – Neither has much to play for here, on form Sale ought to win but in a dead rubber London Irish probably have more of a point to prove to their fans on home soil. Irish by 5.

Newcastle Falcons v Exeter Chiefs – Again a bit of a dead rubber, Newcastle will want to bow out on a high but with England’s tour squad getting more injury ravaged by the minute Exeter’s young guns might just fancy this as a chance to impress Stuart Lancaster, particularly Luke Cowan-Dickie who might fancy a shot at getting on tour given the depleted hooking resources. Exeter by more than 7.

Northampton Saints v London Wasps (Live on BT Sport) – Wasps are saving themselves for Stade Francais and have rested their key performers while Saints have named as strong a line up as possible and are determined to secure a home semi final. This can surely only go one way. Northampton by more than 7.

Worcester Warriors v Gloucester – With their relegation confirmed it would be no surprise to see Worcester finish the season on a high against a Gloucester side that has misfired all season. The Worcester faithful deserve something to cheer about and their performances deserve a second victory. Worcester by less than 7.

By Angus Savage (@AngusSavageXV) & Rhiannon Chandler-Day (@RhiannonCDay)

To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her rugby blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukrhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk

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