The final round of the 2019/2020 English Premiership season is upon us, and there are four teams still fighting for places in the play-offs. Wasps, Bath and Bristol Bears will all be looking to get the win that they need to seal a place in the top four on Sunday, joining Exeter Chiefs in the final stages of the Premiership season, with Sale Sharks’ match against Worcester Warriors postponed until Wednesday following positive coronavirus tests at the club. However, four into three doesn’t go – so who will miss out? In this analysis, we will look at each team, assessing their chances of claiming a place in the top four, and their chances of this game being their final one for this season.
Wasps (currently 2nd)
Wasps’ recovery and improvement from the start of the season to now has been incredible. Dai Young had done an excellent job in his overall time at the club, but they had declined over the last few seasons. Fast forward to now, and we can see that new head coach Lee Blackett has made them carry more of a threat in attack, and more rigid at the back. They have deservedly risen to where they are now, and are one game away from taking a place in the play-off positions. The lineup they have selected is below.
It is a strong selection, with several big names picked. The eye is particularly drawn to their backline, with Italy international Matteo Minozzi at full-back, Zach Kibirige and Josh Bassett as wingers, and Jimmy Gopperth and Malakai Fekitoa as centres. That will be difficult to break down, and will also provide so much pace and threat going forwards. Add to that the trickery of fly-half Jacob Umaga and the exceptional passing accuracy and creativity of Dan Robson at scrum-half, and Wasps’ tactics in these areas will mean that whatever Exeter Chiefs side is deployed will find it very difficult to stop them. We are expecting it to be a weakened Chiefs side, with the Champions Cup final coming up, so it is likely that Wasps will score plenty of points and win the game, sealing their place in the top four.
Bath (currently 3rd)
Bath have gone almost under the radar a little at times, and have gone from being a middle-to-top side to a definite contender for the title. However, will they have enough to seal a place in the last four, or will they fall at the final hurdle? That is the question that everyone is asking. They are away to Saracens in the final round, in Sarries’ final game in the Premiership before they exit for the Championship next season. It is likely that they will put out a very strong squad for their farewell, which could backfire on Bath’s hopes of making it to the play-offs.
If we look at the starting 15 that Bath have chosen, we can see that they have most of their first choice players available. The front three trio of hooker Tom Dunn and props Beno Obano and Will Stuart, who have been so deadly when playing together, will line up at the front of the scrum, which will mean Saracens will need to bring their best scrummaging to the game. Further back, England flanker Sam Underhill is always a competitor, and it will take a lot to get past him. In the backs, Bath have a lot of pace and ability to get forward and score tries, with England duo Anthony Watson and Ruaridh McConnochie playing at full-back and wing respectively, whilst we know how dangerous Josh Matavesi can be when he is given an inch of space. However, will this be enough? That remains to be seen.
Bristol Bears (currently 5th)
The game that will be most interesting to watch will be Bristol Bears against London Irish, with Bristol having to go away to Harlequins’ Twickenham Stoop, where Irish have played their home games since the season’s restart. It is a widely accepted fact that Bristol have arguably been the team of the season so far, for their rise to the top of the table, and have been the second best team overall in the Premiership, after Exeter. However, they currently sit fifth in the league, one place outside the top four, and, as things stand, would miss out on what would be a deserved place in the play-offs.
If we look at their chosen lineups, we can see some very interesting calls that Director of Rugby Pat Lam has made. Firstly, Ben Earl, on loan from Saracens, starts at Number 8 rather than flanker, with Jake Heenan coming in to play in that position with regular starter Chris Vui. This could be because Earl can then get on the ball quicker from the back of the scrum, picking it up and running with it, as we know he likes to do. Tactically, this could be a master decision from the Bears. The other player they have on loan from Saracens, full-back Max Malins, starts at fly-half, whilst Piers O’Conor, normally a centre, plays on the wing. These are some interesting decisions that we will need to look at later and see if they worked or not. Semi Radradra could be the player who creates ground for the team, as we know how he likes to get on the ball and break through opponents in his usual destructive manner.
In conclusion, we can see in this tactical preview that all three teams have naturally gone for strong lineups, but the one that is most risky is Bristol’s with some players in positions they may not be so used to. However, it is likely that Bath may be the team to miss out if results go as they should, especially as Saracens have picked the likes of Elliott Daly, Alex Lewington, Sean Maitland, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola in their team. It will be an interesting day of rugby, but we also need to remember that it won’t all be decided tomorrow, now that Sale Sharks will play Worcester Warriors on Wednesday.