Following the culmination of the European club rugby season last weekend, Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Wasps and Leicester Tigers take centre stage on the domestic scene, as a Twickenham Premiership Final date looms for Saturday’s semi-final victors.
Twenty two rounds of the league campaign drew to a close a fortnight ago with Sarries and the Chiefs sealing home semi-finals for first and second place finishes respectively.
Wasps, with a third place finish, face a fourth matchup with Exeter this season, whilst familiar playoff contenders, Leicester, face the unenviable task as fourth seeds, to tackle newly-crowned Champions Cup winners, Saracens, at Allianz Park.
Sarries' double bid
Last weekend’s Champions Cup finale saw Saracens claim club rugby’s highest honour for the first time in the clubs' history.
A 21-9 victory against an equally formidable Racing 92 cemented their status as one of the most imposing club sides at present, and have not tasted defeat domestically for two months following – ironically – a 21-13 loss to Leicester at Welford Road.
Having won the Premiership last season as fourth seeds, Mike McCall’s side are now looking to retain their domestic crown and shake an unwanted statistic of never ending eventual English champions following topping the final league standings, whilst sealing an historic double trophy haul.
Tiger's semi heartache
The Tigers extend their post-season record of successive playoff appearances to 12 at Allianz Park this weekend, however since their last domestic title in 2013, they have fallen at the semi-final stage in the past two league campaigns.
Alongside this season’s Champions Cup semi-final exit at the hands of eventual runners-up Racing, Richard Cockerill will be preparing his side to go one better and restore former glories, even taking inspiration from their round-ball counterparts to defy – the not as long – odds.
Leicester’s Director of Rugby believes this weekend’s final four encounter is a ‘different scenario’ from their 26-6 loss in North London back at the start of the year, and that it is a ‘great opportunity’ for a Tigers side that on their day ‘can beat anybody’.
Englad stars primed for battle
England boss Eddie Jones – who earlier this week reckoned the current Saracens side to match the trophy success of the 2000’s Super 15 side, Crusaders – will be thrilled at the English talent on display at Allianz Park this weekend
Sarries boast this season’s Premiership player-of-the-year in full back, Alex Goode, and young player-of-the-year, as second-row, Mario Itoje’s campaign goes from strength to strength. The 21-year old claimed his first international cap back in February and has been a fulcrum of the North Londoners success in recent weeks, claiming European player-of-the-year and Champions Cup man-of-the-match awards.
Nine-try Chris Ashton will look to swan-dive his way into double figures for the season, whilst Sarries will be able to call upon added England regulars Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and George Kruis.
As Saracens build an England core to their starting XV, the Tigers will be able to call on experienced English internationals such as prop, Dan Coles, and scrum-half, Ben Youngs, for their trip south on Saturday, whilst perhaps most vitally, centre Manu Tuilagi will return from a knee injury that has kept him sidelined since Leicester’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat.
Having assured a playoff place before their final day 38-27 loss at Bath a fortnight ago, Richard Cockerill took the opportunity to rest regular starters such as top try scorer Telusa Veainu, fellow Pacific Island winger, Niki Goneva, and second rower, Graham Kitchener, although the Tigers will be without their top points scorer this campaign in Freddie Burns, as the fly-half’s season came to an end against Racing 92 last month due to an early ankle-injury.
Sandy Park's playoff debut
With recent playoff regulars kicking off Saturday afternoon’s semi-finals, Exeter Chiefs’ Sandy Park stadium will see its playoff debut and welcome a Wasps side that haven’t reached the Premiership post-season since their last title success eight years ago.
Rob Baxter’s Exeter team have seen a steady progression since their promotion to the top flight in 2010, and having finished just one place off the playoff spots on two occasions in their short Premiership history, the Chiefs are one home game away from the biggest match in their burgeoning existence.
Free scoring familiarity
Both teams come into this weekend’s clash as the highest points and try scorers in the league and across their three meetings so far this season have averaged almost 50 points per game.
The Chiefs will take confidence from their two league victories against the now based Coventry outfit, having beaten Wasps only three weeks ago at Sandy Park, 24-3, and a 41-27 win at the Ricoh Arena back in early December.
However, in the Champions Cup quarter-finals Exeter were looking odds on for a second success at the Ricoh as the clock ticked towards the 80th minute leading 24-18; only for Charles Piutau to touch down for his second try and Jimmy Gopperth hold his nerve for a successful conversion with the clock well into the red, resulting in a pulsating 25-24 Wasps victory.
With Dai Young’s side since exiting Europe in the semi-finals both teams last competitive fixture was the final day of the Premiership league campaign two weeks ago, as the championship hopefuls once again racked up the points.
The Chiefs royally spoiled Conor O’Shea’s domestic sign off at Harlequins with an eye-catching 62-24 win at the Stoop, whilst Wasps made light work of already relegated London Irish in a 38-12 success at the Ricoh.
‘Thomas the Tank'
With Chiefs winger Jack Nowell and Wasps counterpart Christian Wade two of the likely scoring threats this weekend, it's somewhat a surprise that the Premiership’s leading try-scorer will come in the form of Exeter’s number eight and 13-try Thomas ‘the Tank’ Waldrom.
Waldrom has been an integral part of the free-scoring Chiefs this season and is joined by teammate Gareth Steenson, as the fly-half, with 234, is the league's highest points scorer for the 2015/16 Premiership campaign.
Captain Steenson will look to further his points haul for the season in front of the home support, whilst Waldrom will have to make an impact off the bench as Don Armand takes the number eight spot following his return from an elbow injury.
Experienced forwards Geoff Parling and Julian Salvi may well be key to an inexperienced post-season side on Saturday and Director of Rugby, Baxter, believes they have ‘important roles to play’ and to ‘understand their place’ in the impressive Chiefs’s ‘jigsaw’.
A 'sting' in the fairytale
Young’s, six-time former league winning side, go into Saturday afternoon’s matchup, in his opinion, as ‘underdogs’, although the Welshman, whose team has not played in a post-season semi-final since 2008, believes he has the ’x-factor players’ that can ‘cause any side problems’.
Such performances will likely need to come from an exciting back division including winger, Wade and centre, Elliot Daly, alongside southern hemisphere talent in winger Frank Halai and the Piutau brothers (Siale at centre & Charles at full-back).
Within the pack, back rowers, James Haskell, Nathan Hughes and George Smith mix youth with over 150 international caps and may well be influential in seeing Wasps ending the Chiefs remarkable rise from top-tier newcomers to major playoff contenders, whilst restoring former glories in their new Midlands home.
With a host of home and foreign talent on display across North London and Devon on Saturday, both encounters promise to deliver a blockbuster afternoon in the search to move one step closer to crowning 2016’s English Aviva Premiership champions.
Will Saracens continue their dominance? Leicester return to the top-table? Wasps, in their new guise, write a new chapter? Or Exeter exceed all expectations?