For the longest time, I’ve enjoyed watching the Six Nations, and this year has been no different (especially with England wrapping up the grand slam), but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really got into watching Rugby Union at club level. It’s not like I’ve had a real excuse – Franklin’s Gardens, home of Northampton Saints, and Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers, are almost exactly the same distance from my front door.
But, it’s hard for me to feel any affinity for any team that’s based over 30 miles away from home. That’s why it took until 2014, when Wasps announced their intention to move to the Ricoh Arena, just a few miles up the A46, for me to really start paying attention to the Aviva Premiership. Since then, I’ve attended matches, with friends and with the entire family sometimes (silly not to, when tickets for kids are free), and I’m giving serious thought to becoming a season ticket holder for the 2016/17 season.
As a Wasps fan, the top of the table is very exciting and heating up nicely – I’ll visit the subject of the top half of the table properly in the next couple of weeks – but this weekend’s results have made the bottom of the table very interesting. With five rounds remaining, there’s a maximum of 25 points available to the teams in the bottom three, though given their places in the table, the only bonus points they’re likely to secure are the ones you get for losing within 7 points.
Right now, mathematically, any team that wants to play Premiership Rugby next season needs 37 points though, realistically, 33 should be enough to secure a place in English rugby’s top-flight. London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and Worcester Warriors are, therefore, fighting for survival.
Remember those 33 points I was talking about? Bath have just that many, and while they’re not yet assured of mathematical safety, they do have the advantage of a game in hand – their 9th round match against Sale was postponed so that their Champions Cup fixture against Toulon could take place earlier in January this year.
Bath’s 150th year will certainly be one they’ll want to forget. A lucky escape last weekend gave them four points when a tired-looking Mike Delany failed to score from two drop goal attempts. A single victory from their next six games, or a loss for any team below them, is all they need to secure their place in the Premiership next season.
Another team whose safety is almost certainly assured, Worcester have 30 points and will be glad that the two teams below them in the table have a head-to-head before the season comes to a close. They’ll be breathing a sigh of relief, given that they have fixtures against all four of the teams at the top of the table in their final five.
Winning four from their last five games will give Worcester some confidence going into their next match, given that Irish will need to score as many points as possible from their remaining fixtures. After that, however, it’s going to be pretty tough for Worcester to get many points in any of their last four games.
Thankfully, for Warriors fans, the real fight for survival is between Falcons and the Exiles.
Unfortunately for Falcons, their remaining fixtures make for sobering reading, especially on the back of their most recent loss, stemming from two agonising missed drop-goals against Bath.
- Wasps (home)
Despite only narrowly beating Newcastle back in February, Wasps’ relentless dominance will be hard for Falcons to resist. Yes, I’m a Wasps supporter, but I don’t think anyone’s realistically expecting the Falcons to get any points from this fixture.
- Harlequins (away)
Assuming a loss to Wasps, Falcons will go into this with five defeats on the bounce, against a Quins team that have won just one in their last four games, albeit with a home advantage. Taking four points is not impossible for the Falcons here.
- London Irish (home)
For Newcastle, having the home advantage in this match is huge, as it’s potentially the game that will decide which team stays in the Aviva Premiership next season.
- Saracens (away)
Falcons will have a tough job with this fixture, and taking even a losing bonus point home from this fixture seems highly unlikely.
- Sale Sharks (home)
If the relegation hasn’t been decided before this game, the Falcons might have the edge, given London Irish will be facing a Wasps side looking to confirm their place in the playoffs.
Falcons go into the final five games with a 5 point advantage over the Exiles, which might just prove to be crucial.
The Exiles have a real fight on their hands, but they also have a set of fixtures featuring games that they can realistically win.
- Worcester (away)
The Exiles showed that they can play good rugby – their fixture against Saracens a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey was only really lost in the last 10 minutes – and the fixture is much more important for London Irish than it is for the Warriors, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t take four points from this fixture.
- Sale Sharks (home)
A tough one to call, but with the home advantage, the Exiles could use this match to turn up the heat on the Falcons ahead of the game that will play a crucial role in deciding their fate. Again, it wouldn’t be impossible for Irish to get four crucial points.
- Newcastle Falcons (away)
This is the most important game for London Irish, given their following fixtures. If they lose this match and Falcons are ahead on points, this could be the end of the Exiles’ tenure in the top flight of English rugby.
- Harlequins (home)
Depending on the results of previous games, Irish would need to pull out all the stops at this game. Even then, it might not be enough, after the drubbing they received at the Stoop in December, when Quins beat them by 31 points.
- Wasps (away)
If their current form continues to the end of the season – and I’m very much hoping that it does, as I will be there cheering them on – then Wasps could be looking to make this their penultimate game of the season by securing a home playoff spot.
Despite the challenging fixtures, I don’t think Warriors have much more to worry about than finishing 10th this season, but their safety will be mathematically assured if either the Falcons or the Exiles fail to score four points in just one of their matches – a statistical certainty, given their impending head-to-head – and while it’s a shame that their safety will come from the Falcons and the Exiles losing games rather than them taking a haul of points over the coming weeks, Warriors fans everywhere will be thankful that their stay in the premiership isn’t going to be a single-season affair
As for the relegation battle? If you’re a Falcons fan, you have my condolences, because I think your team has the toughest battle on their hands.
Whatever happens, the last few weeks are going to make for some very interesting watching. If you enjoyed the Six Nations, there’s never been a better time to dip your toe into the club competition.