After a woeful Natwest Six Nations campaign for England, the eyes of English rugby return to the Aviva Premiership as the battle for semi-final places intensifies with just five rounds of action left to play until the knockout stages.
With many clubs having their full complement of internationals back and available for selection, minus those who have ended European competition on the treatment table, this weekend promises to be another bout of high-quality top-flight rugby – and one you can enjoy more of with Saracens’ clash against Harlequins coming living free-to-air television with Channel 5 on Saturday.
Bath Rugby v Exeter Chiefs
However, the action gets underway at the iconic Recreation Ground set in the backdrop of Bath’s stunning architecture as Todd Blackadder’s West Country welcome defending champions and runaway league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
Bath come into Round 18 five points adrift of fourth-placed Newcastle Falcons, while Exeter Chiefs will be out to claim a third consecutive top-flight win in order to protect their seven-point lead at the summit.
London Irish v Gloucester Rugby
Gloucester Rugby will launch their claim to return to Premiership’s top four in Round 18 as they travel to the Madejski Stadium to face rock-bottom London Irish, who have just two wins in 17 outings to date.
Gloucester find themselves just four points behind the semi-final berths as things stand, meaning a bonus-point win in Reading, as well as results falling in their favour, could see them catapulted back into the running for the knockouts, an opportunity they can ill-afford to pass up against an Exiles side who, albeit picked up a second win in Round 16, simply look out of their depth at this level.
Sale Sharks v Worcester Warriors
Not too far ahead of London Irish are 10th-placed Worcester Warriors, who face a testing Round 18 trip to Salford’s AJ Bell Stadium to face Sale Sharks this weekend.
Pre-season saw a lot of hype around Sale, but the Sharks have lacked the bite expected and themselves wallow in eight, with just eight wins from 17 outings to date, but they could move to back-to-back wins should they slay the Warriors this weekend, a result which could see them climb as high as fifth should results pan out in their favour.
Saracens v Harlequins
The pick of the Round 18 fixtures sees last season’s European Rugby Champions Cup winners Saracens take on London rivals Harlequins at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday as the London Stadium becomes the 37th venue to host Premiership Rugby, and it’s a game which will be shown live on free-to-air television to help raise the profile of the top-flight game.
Successive defeats to Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs have seen Saracens slip to third in the Premiership hierarchy, but a derby duel with ninth-placed Harlequins, who have won just seven hames all season, will be a welcome sight for Mark McCall’s men as they seek to trim the eight-point advantage Exeter currently hold over them.
Newcastle Falcons Northampton Saints
Just three points behind Saracens are the story of the 2017/18 campaign thus far in Newcastle Falcons who welcome lowly Northampton Saints to Kingston Park this weekend as the hosts seek to consolidate their place in the semi-final places.
With top four places so fiercely contested for at this stage of the season, the fourth-placed Falcons would rue allowing 10th-placed Saints to take anything home to the Midlands following their trip to the North East, suggesting a bonus-point win would be the target here for Newcastle, but first and foremost, victory is essential to keep them in the running.
Leicester Tigers v Wasps
Last season’s runners-up, Wasps, are hot on the heels of leaders Exeter, with just seven points separating the pair and they will look to cut the deficit this weekend as they travel to Welford Road to face Leicester Tigers.
Earlier in the season you would have suggested this would be a comfortable win for Wasps given Leicester’s woeful start the campaign, but their renewed vigour has seen them rise to fifth in the standings, just three points behind a play-off place, meaning Matt O’Connor’s Tigers have plenty to play for, but they can avoid a sting in the tail from a formidable Wasps, who seek to extend their unbeaten Premiership run to five games.