FINAL COUNTDOWN: With a mere five points separating the five teams from third-place Leicester Tigers to seventh-place Gloucester Rugby the race for a semi-final and European Rugby Champions Cup spot set up a nail-biting weekend.
A big crowd is expected at Kingston Park on Friday to kick off the weekend in style as Sale Sharks head to Newcastle.
Kingsholm Stadium, Welford Road and the Ricoh Arena are the venues for the Saturday triple-bill with the weekend finishing with two compelling matches at Allianz Park and the Madejski Stadium.
A vital all-northern clash sees the fifth-placed Newcastle Falcons hosting Sale Shark, who sat one point and one place behind them, with the result crucial in terms of Premiership semi-final qualification.
Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards said commented on the importance of the match:
"Friday football at Kingston Park, for me, is the best thing out there.
"The atmosphere I think is the best on the circuit, the boys love going out there and the crowd really get them going. We haven’t played a Premiership home game here since the middle of February, there is a lot of excitement within the group and it should be a great occasion,"
Making no attempt to play down the stakes, Richards said: "The way things are poised in the Premiership table means Friday is set up to be an absolutely cracking game with a huge amount riding on it.
"We’ve taken a few bumps from last weekend and put some fresh bodies out there, it will be an interesting game and it certainly won’t be an easy one against a good Sale side who enjoyed a late win at home to Wasps last Friday. Sale will be on a high from that result, they’re playing some good rugby and I think it’s great for the north that you’ve got the both of us in the top half of the table.
"For us it’s a must-win game in terms of keeping our top-four hopes alive, and if we don’t win then we can almost kiss the semi-finals goodbye. That’s not a mathematical certainty, but you have to be realistic about the fact it will be extremely difficult to make the top four if we don’t win this one.
"Sale have a very good scrum-half in Faf de Klerk who really controls things and they have some gas outside as well. Their forward pack deserves a lot of respect, they have been going well and we’ll definitely be made to work for everything,"
Aiming to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat at Worcester, the director of rugby added: "We didn’t really get out of the blocks down there, we didn’t control the territory and Worcester did that exceptionally well.
"We were in our own half for about 65-70 percent of the time, the stats speak volumes about how Worcester controlled that and it was very disappointing from our point of view. It explains why we came away with a loss rather than a win, and you can’t score when you don’t have the ball.
"I think Worcester are a good side who shouldn’t really be down there at second-bottom, and they played well on the day. They’ve obviously got the ability, and while it was a disappointing performance from us you also have to give Worcester a lot of credit for turning in arguably their best 80 minutes of the season,"
Take a look at all the upcoming fixtures of Round 20!
Friday, April 13
Newcastle Falcons v Sale Sharks
(Kingston Park - Kick-off: 19.45, 19.45 GMT)
Newcastle Falcons four-game winning run in Premiership Rugby ended at Worcester on Saturday. The Tynesiders have won their last eight matches at Kingston Park in all competitions since their reversal there to Gloucester in round nine of Premiership Rugby.
Sale Sharks have won their last three Premiership Rugby encounters but have not won four in a row in the competition for over two years. The Sharks only defeat in their last four away games in all tournaments was by a single point at Bath in round 16 of Premiership Rugby.
The Falcons beat the Sharks 13-12 in Salford in September and have not achieved a Premiership Rugby double over them since season 2006-07. Sale have won on three of their last four visits to Kingston Park in Premiership Rugby.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Michael Young, 8 Ally Hogg, 7 Gary Graham, 6 Will Welch (captain), 5 Will Witty, 4 Calum Green, 3 Scott Wilson, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Sam Lockwood
Replacements: 16 Santiago Socino, 17 Rob Vickers, 18 Trevor Davison, 19 Evan Olmstead, 20 Ryan Burrows, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Maxime Mermoz, 23 Alex Tait.
Sale Sharks: 15 Byron McGuigan, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Sam James, 12 Luke James, 11 Paolo Odogwu, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Faf De Klerk, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Ben Curry, 6 Jono Ross (Captain), 5 Andrei Ostrikov, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 WillGriff John, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements 16 Marc Jones, 17 Alexandru Tarus, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Josh Beaumont, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Tom Curry, 22 Will Cliff, 23 Cameron Redpath.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Assistant Referees: Jack Makepeace & John Meredith.
TMO: Trevor Fisher.
Saturday, April 14
Gloucester Rugby v Harlequins
(Kingsholm - Kick-off: 15.00, 15.00 GMT)
Gloucester Rugby won seven of their first ten matches in Premiership Rugby this season but since have won only three more, at home to Sale and Leicester and away at London Irish. Gloucester’s two home defeats in any competition this season were to Pau in round six of the European Challenge Cup and to Newcastle in round 17 of Premiership Rugby.
Harlequins have picked up just four league points from their last six Premiership Rugby encounters, all from a 20-5 victory at home to Bath on 4 March. The Londoners have been defeated in their last nine away games in all tournaments since beating Saracens by a single point in the first round of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, whilst their only away win in Premiership Rugby this season was at Wasps in round three.
Harlequins have lost only one of their last seven fixtures with Gloucester in Premiership Rugby: 6-28 at Kingsholm in February 2016. Quins won on their most recent visit to Kingsholm in March 2017 but have not achieved successive victories at the famous venue this century.
Gloucester: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Billy Twelvetrees, 12 Mark Atkinson, 11 Henry Trinder, 10 Billy Burns, 9 Callum Braley, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Lewis Ludlow, 6 Jake Polledri, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Ed Slater (captain), 3 John Afoa, 2 James Hanson, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Tom Savage, 20 Freddie Clarke, 21 Ruan Ackermann, 22 Ben Vellacott, 23 Tom Hudson.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Charlie Walker, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Alofa Alofa, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Danny Care, 8 Mat Luamanu, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Jack Clifford, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 George Merrick, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Joe Gray, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Elia Elia, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Will Collier, 19 Stan South, 20 Luke Wallace, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 James Lang, 23 Gabriel Ibitoye.
Referee: Luke Pearce
Assistant Referees: Anthony Woodthorpe & Jonathan Healy.
TMO: Graham Hughes.
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints
(Welford Road, - Kick-off: 15.00, 15.00 GMT)
Leicester Tigers are the best team in Premiership Rugby on current form having gained 24 league points from their last six encounters. Tigers have lost three times in Premiership Rugby at Welford Road this season, and have only once before suffered four home defeats in any league campaign – in 2003/04.
Northampton Saints have slipped to four straight Premiership Rugby defeats since their 25-17 win at home to London Irish on 17 February. The Saints only away victory in the last twelve months of Premiership Rugby was 40-25 at London Irish in round four.
Northampton’s 24-11 victory over Leicester at Franklin’s Gardens in round two ended a run of seven defeats to Tigers in all competitions. The Saints have only once before achieved a Premiership Rugby season double over their great East Midland rivals – in 2003-04.
Leicester: 15 Telusa Veainu, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Sam Harrison, 8 Sione Kalamafoni, 7 Luke Hamilton, 6 Valentino Mapapalangi, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs (captain), 1 Ellis Genge.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Greg Bateman, 18 Logovi’i Mulipola, 19 Harry Wells, 20 Will Evans, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 George Worth, 23 Jonah Holmes.
Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ben Foden, 13 Rob Horne (captain), 12 Piers Francis, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Mitch Eadie, 7 Teimana Harrison, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 James Craig, 4 Api Ratuniyarawa, 3 Paul Hill, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Campese Ma’afu.
Replacements: 16 Charlie Clare, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Ehren Painter, 19 Michael Paterson, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Luther Burrell, 23 Tom Collins.
Referee: Matthew Carley
Assistant Referees: Tom Foley & Paul Dix.
TMO: Sean Davey
Wasps v Worcester Warriors
(Ricoh Arena - Kick-off: 15.00, 15.00 GMT)
Wasps only victory in the last four rounds of Premiership Rugby was 24-16 at home to London Irish on 4 March. Wasps only defeat at Ricoh Arena in Premiership Rugby since October was to Saracens in round 13.
Worcester Warriors ended a three games losing streak with their 27-13 victory over Newcastle at Sixways last weekend. Warriors have won just twice away from home in Premiership Rugby in the last two years, but both were notable scalps, at Leicester and at Exeter.
Wasps have won their last eight fixtures against Exeter in all tournaments since the Warriors 29-23 victory at Sixways in Premiership Rugby in March 2013. The last time Worcester were triumphant on Wasps turf was 6-0 at Adams Park on New Year’s Day 2012.
Wasps: 15 Willie Le Roux, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jimmy Gopperth, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Guy Thompson, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Jack Willis, 5 Will Rowlands, 4 Joe Launchbury (captain), 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 2 Tom Cruse, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Tommy Taylor, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Kearnan Myall, 20 James Haskell, 21 Craig Hampson, 22 Gaby Lovobalavu, 23 Josh Bassett.
Worcester: 15 Chris Pennell, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dorian Jones, 9 Michael Dowsett, 8 GJ van Velze (captain), 7 Sam Lewis, 6 David Denton, 5 Will Spencer, 4 Darren Barry, 3 Nick Schonert, 2 Jack Singleton, 1 Ryan Bower.
Replacements: 16 Kurt Haupt, 17 Ethan Waller, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Andrew Kitchener, 20 Marco Mama, 21 Jonny Arr, 22 Jamie Shillcock, 23 Dean Hammond.
Referee: Ian Tempest
Assistant Referees: Adam Leal & Wayne Falla.
TMO: Stuart Terheege.
Sunday, April 15
London Irish v Exeter Chiefs
(Madejski Stadium - Kick-off: 15.00, 15.00)
London Irish achieved only their third Premiership Rugby victory of the season last weekend, with two of those coming against Harlequins. The Exiles did not open their winning account at Madejski Stadium this season until they beat Krasny Yar there on 13 January, but have now won three of their last five fixtures at the venue.
Exeter Chiefs have won their last six matches in all competitions since their 7-13 defeat at Wasps in round 15 of Premiership Rugby. The Chiefs have lost four times on the road in Premiership Rugby this season, at Gloucester, Leicester, Newcastle and Wasps.
Exeter have lost only one of their last ten encounters with London Irish in Premiership Rugby: 26-28 at Madejski Stadium in January 2015.
London Irish: 15 Tommy Bell, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Tom Fowlie, 12 Theo Brophy Clews, 11 Alex Lewington, 10 James Marshall, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Ofisa Treviranus, 7 Max Northcote-Green, 6 Josh McNally, 5 Sebastian De Chaves, 4 Franco van der Merwe (captain), 3 Ollie Hoskins, 2 David Paice, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Dave Porecki, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Petrus Du Plessis, 19 Josh Basham, 20 Jake Schatz, 21 Scott Steele, 22 Fergus Mulchrone, 23 Aseli Tikoirotuma.
Exeter: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Santiago Cordero, 10 Gareth Steenson (captain), 9 Nic White, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Moray Low, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 Stuart Townsend, 22 Sam Hill, 23 Tom O’Flaherty.
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Hamish Smales & Nigel Carrick.
TMO: David Sainsbury.
Saracens v Bath Rugby
(Allianz Park - Kick-off: 15.00, 15.00)
Saracens have lost just twice in the last nine rounds of Premiership Rugby, at home to Leicester in round 16 and away at Exeter in round 17. Saracens have won five of their last six home games in all tournaments.
Bath Rugby have slipped to three straight Premiership Rugby defeats but have not lost four in succession in the tournament since season 2011-12. Bath’s only victory in their last five away games in Premiership Rugby was 46-25 at Worcester in round 13.
Bath beat Saracens 31-21 at the Recreation Ground in round 2 and have not achieved a Premiership Rugby season’s double over them since 2003-04. Bath’s only victory on Saracens’ soil in Premiership Rugby since 2006 was 16-14 at Vicarage Road in February 2010.
Saracens: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Jackson Wray, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Nick Isiekwe, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dominic Day, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Kieran Longbottom, 19 Michael Rhodes, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Alex Goode.
Bath: 15 James Wilson, 14 Matt Banahan, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Aled Brew, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Tom Ellis, 5 Elliott Stooke, 4 Charlie Ewels (captain), 3 Shaun Knight, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Beno Obano.
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Victor Delmas, 19 James Phillips, 20 Paul Grant, 21 Max Green, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Tom Homer.
Referee: Karl Dickson
Assistant Referees: Christophe Ridley & Peter Allan.
TMO: Geoff Warren.
PREMIERSHIP MACTH REPORT: Saracens booked their place in the Premiership Rugby semi-finals with a handsome bonus-point 41-6 win at home to Bath Rugby, on the day of Chris Wyles’ 250th club appearance.
Wyles was given a standing ovation before the match as he paraded with his son Finn and then played his part in a complete Saracens display.
Schalk Brits, who will leave the club this summer along with Wyles, got the ball rolling before further scores from Liam Williams, Richard Wigglesworth, Farrell, Schalk Burger and Ben Spencer cemented victory.
The win ensures they will once again be in the semi-finals as they attempt to win the title for the third time in four years.
Saracens started on the front foot, with hooker Brits relentless in his work ethic as he hurried and hassled Bath.
And it was he who crossed for the game’s first try, regathering the ball at the back of an attacking line-out and powering across at the back of a driving maul.
And just after the 20-minute mark they notched a second, with Owen Farrell’s tackle on Aled Brew dislodging the ball and Nick Isiekwe setting Williams clear to cross.
Bath were handed a blow when centre Jonathan Joseph limped off with an injury but Rhys Priestland kept them in striking distance with two penalties.
However, Saracens got the third after the break to regain the lead – with scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth crossing after a superb pop-up pass from winger Williams.
Farrell got in the act shortly after to confirm the bonus point as he intercepted a loose Bath pass and ran in unopposed.
The hosts were not done there, with powerful flanker Burger and replacement scrumhalf Spencer also getting in on the act.
Tries: Brits, Williams, Wigglesworth, Farrell, Burger, Spencer
Cons: Farrell 4
Pens: Priestland 2
Saracens: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Jackson Wray, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Nick Isiekwe, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dominic Day, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Kieran Longbottom, 19 Michael Rhodes, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Alex Goode
Bath: 15 James Wilson, 14 Matt Banahan, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Aled Brew, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Tom Ellis, 5 Elliott Stooke, 4 Charlie Ewels (captain), 3 Shaun Knight, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Beno Obano
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Victor Delmas, 19 James Phillips, 20 Paul Grant, 21 Max Green, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Tom Homer
Referee: Karl Dickson
Assistant referees: Christophe Ridley, Peter Allan
TMO: Geoffrey Warren