The Aviva Premiership has reached its semi-final stage and, if the quality of last week’s matches is anything to go by, we are in for two cracking games.
In this evening’s semi-final, we have an East Midlands derby at Franklin’s Gardens where Northampton host Leicester Tigers, followed tomorrow when Harlequins are the visitors to Saracens’ Allianz Park.
Quins come into the game having left it until the last round to secure their involvement, overcoming Bath at home in a virtual decider for fourth place.
It was a quality game with Harlequins winning 19-16, and despite all the efforts of the rapidly-maturing George Ford, the home side had enough.
It was a great demonstration of what can be done if you have got the right environment from a team point of view, and Quins certainly seem to have that under the direction of Conor O’Shea.
We have seen various pictures of Bath’s owner Bruce Craig who, although he must be feeling disappointed at the result, can be a little happier now that his side look like they are beginning to gel.
After a couple of false dawns, they now have genuine quality, and with people like O’Shea and Mike Ford on the field and supported in the right way by the likes of Ford senior and Toby Booth, their coaches off it, they are going to be serious contenders again next season.
For all that Harlequins have worked wonders in getting through to the semi-finals, an away draw to Saracens tomorrow is about as tough as it gets, though.
Their end-of-season run-in must have taken a lot out of them, and fine team though they are, I think home advantage will see Saracens through to another final.
Sarries, if anything, will have the fresher legs, having rotated a number of their squad for last weekend’s dead rubber at Leicester. Their run-in has been easier, and the signs seem to point towards them getting the job done.
Before that is the clash between the Saints and the Tigers this evening in Northampton, who were big winners over my former club London Wasps last weekend.
Even with the mitigation of their impending European play-off and a raft of changes for Wasps, no side wants to be associated with a team conceding 74 points in a game.
Leicester typically seem to be coming into form at just the right time, and it is all set to be a fascinating contest.
Northampton have been the better of the two over the 22 games, but it is about coming to the boil at the right time in this play-off format.
From a North East perspective it is great to see Toby Flood back in there for the Tigers and hitting some scoring form before he heads to France in the summer, not just at fly-half but in the centres.
Home advantage is massive in these games where there is so little to choose between the two sides, and I just feel that unless Northampton do something stupid, they might just edge this one.
To do that they need to keep cool heads, and for the likes of Courtney Lawes to stay on the field for 80 minutes. If they can do that, then a place in the final is there for the taking.
The Premiership is not the only league in its play-off phase, with the Championship’s four teams vying in the semi-finals for a place in the top flight.
It is a route Newcastle Falcons know well from last season, and both ties are interestingly poised with Bristol three points up over Rotherham and Leeds seven ahead going to London Welsh.
For Rotherham, it was a creditable result to lose by just three in the West Country, but I would expect Bristol to have too much firepower in the away leg tomorrow.
All sides have a major incentive with promotion, but given the investment and pedigree, it would be acutely embarrassing if Bristol were not able to make it this year.
Thinking back to the same stage last season, Newcastle Falcons had to come from behind in their own semi-final against Leeds, and last weekend’s home scare might well be just the incentive Bristol need to come out all guns blazing.
Despite playing away, I also think Leeds will be too strong for London Welsh, who will have to overcome a seven-point deficit before they can get back to all square – a really tough task at this stage.