Who holds the aces as the race for the Premiership title hots up? | Robert Kitson
Are Leicester uncatchable?
The biggest compliment you can currently pay Leicester is that they are playing like an international team. Steve Borthwick has worked for long enough at the right hand of Eddie Jones in Japan and England to know the importance of being tough to play against as well as supremely fit. He has also gathered some shrewd tactical lieutenants around him and the uplift in Tigers’ efficiency has been conspicuous.
Even their rivals acknowledge there has been no disputing the best side in the country from September to April. “What they’ve done is go back to their roots,” says the Harlequins’ coach, Tabai Matson. “They are formidable around the set piece – the best in the league – are ferocious defensively and work so hard for each other.
“Underpinning their success is the fact they’re leading the competition in those areas. George Ford is leading them well, the captain [Ellis Genge] is in the engine room and he’s playing well. A lot of things are back that have been their trademarks for decades. They’re clearly well-drilled with Borthers there and they’re setting the standard.”
The only question marks are the normal ones associated with longtime frontrunners: can they find another gear in the closing stages? TSaturday’s trip to Harlequins will be instructive: if the champions can be ground down on their own patch Tigers fans will see no reason why they cannot return to Twickenham’s biggest stage and beat anyone in June. Falter at home to Leinster in the European quarters, though, and a little self-doubt could resurface.
Can Saracens rediscover the winning touch?
It has been a long road back to the playoffs for Saracens, last involved in a Premiership final three years ago. There have been flashes of their old dominant selves but, by their own admission, they have not been firing consistently. Less experience in certain positions? Overeagerness?
According to Ben Earl, the league’s top tackler, a much more upbeat narrative may yet unfold. “If you look at Quins’ template last year momentum was crucial for them. That’s something we’ve been speaking about … not so much the tangible five points every week but the feeling we’re getting on the pitch. We’ve had a couple of crucial people injured but we’re slowly getting back to a full complement and we’re excited about what that could mean.”
Having lost at Sandy Park this season, though, there is recognition that Sunday will be tough. “Exeter is a massive rivalry. There’s obviously been a bit of bite between the two teams over the years … we know that if we’re slightly off it we’re going to get punished.”
The chance to knock the Chiefs out of the title running would be a further bonus. “It’s an elephant in the room in terms of what they need out of the game but we also know we have Quins breathing down our necks,” says Earl. “If we take our foot off the pedal we’re probably going to pay the price for it. It’s as big a game for us as it is for them in terms of belief.”
Can Harlequins ambush their rivals again?
At their best no one has a sharper attacking edge than Quins. They are the Premiership’s top try-scorers with 78 but they give the opposition a chance, too. Saracens, their likely playoff opponents, have completed a home and away double against their London adversaries this season and Leicester have also beaten them. The good news from Matson’s perspective is that the club’s narrow two-leg European exit to Montpellier has hardened his players’ resolve.
“If we don’t get this right Leicester will humiliate us,” warned the coach. “You can’t sulk for too long. This week’s really important for measuring ourselves. The two teams in front of us in the league are setting the standard. They’ve set the benchmark and we need to lift.” Quins are not about to retreat into their shells but against Montpellier their decision-making was not as consistently sure-footed as it might have been.
“The lessons we learned from that defeat we have to right if we are to be serious contenders,” continued Matson. “The way we play it’s always going to be a balancing act. We want to play to our DNA but you have to be very pragmatic against the best teams in Europe.” As they showed against Bristol and Exeter last season, though, a dramatic late comeback can never be discounted and, as Matson stresses, it is what happens next that really matters: “We have still got another nine weeks of the competition left and they are the most important nine weeks.”
Who will win the fight for fourth?
Exeter’s normally assured place in the playoffs is currently far from guaranteed. Gloucester’s five-point haul after their cancelled fixture with Worcester had propelled them into fifth before their visit to Bristol on Friday night and Northampton are also in the frame.
Much will hinge on Gloucester’s final two regular season games against Harlequins (away) and Saracens (home); both opponents are likely to be pushing for a home semi-final and at least one of them will have to be beaten.
The Cherry & Whites have been building nicely under George Skivington but this season they have lost home and away to Exeter and the European Challenge Cup remains another distraction. The Saints, meanwhile, have Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes sidelined and may have left themselves with too much to do.
Which brings us back to the Chiefs, Premiership finalists for the past six seasons and twice winners. Injuries have weakened them at key moments, untimely red cards at Harlequins and Worcester also proved costly, and losses at home to Northampton, Newcastle and Wasps by a combined aggregate of four points have not helped either.
All that said, their destiny remains largely in their own hands and they should still make the playoffs if they can win at Saracens on Sunday. “We cannot talk about what happened earlier in the season and be hard on ourselves, we just have to win every game,” stressed their experienced Irish centre Ian Whitten. “We have to beat Sarries, we cannot afford to drop any more points.”