With five rounds to go and so many possible permutations for those at the bottom of the Gallagher Premiership table, surely nobody expected this.
Five games and six teams all looking around nervously as they desperately search for the winning formula which has eluded them all season.
Among this number are three fallen giants in Leicester Tigers, Bath and Wasps – but history counts for nothing between now and the final round of regular season games on 18 May, and Bristol, Worcester Warriors and bottom club Newcastle Falcons have every bit as much skin in this relegation game.
Just 10 points – or two bonus-point wins to put it another way – separate Bath in seventh from Newcastle in 12th and any one of those six sides will be having sleepless nights. For some, the prospect that they might be playing Championship rugby next season will not even have been countenanced when this campaign began. But this nightmare is starting to feel very real.
Wasps director Dai Young, whose eighth-placed side are arguably in the worst downward spiral of them all with eight losses from nine games, perhaps summed it up best this week.
“If you look at the Premiership it’s crazy,” he said. “You’ve got the third team on nine wins and the bottom team on six. There’s only three wins between third and bottom, we’re all beating each other.
“We’re all in a state of shock and there’s some nervous anxiety right across the Premiership.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve got to look over our shoulders. Anybody outside the top six, we’re all in the same boat.”
Young’s team, boosted by the return from injury of Young’s son Thomas on the openside flank, host fellow strugglers Worcester at the Ricoh Arena after Alan Solomons’ men gained a potentially critical away win over ninth-placed Bristol last time out.
In so many ways, it is an even bigger game for Wasps than the Premiership final in 2017. Remember that? Two years ago, things felt very different in Coventry.
But it’s not just Wasps who are getting seriously twitchy.
Leicester, sitting just five points above Newcastle in ninth, this week parachuted in former Bath and England coach Mike Ford as a “senior coach” to work alongside current boss Geordan Murphy, appointed himself on an interim basis after Matt O’Connor was sacked one game into the season. Come the end of the season, Ford’s arrival will be viewed as either an inspired choice or yet another clanger from Leicester’s increasingly under fire board.
In the messiest season in the club’s proud but increasingly fraught history, defeat at home to top of the table Exeter on Saturday would bring Armageddon for the league’s best supported club more starkly into view.
Tigers’ game against Falcons at Kingston Park next Friday night is shaping up to be the most important game of the season. Who would have thought that back in September?
“This club expects to win trophies,” said Leicester captain Tom Youngs, whose side saw a host of international stars return against Northampton a fortnight ago but still failed to fire a shot against their bitter east midland rivals.
“We expect to be up there at the top and we’re not and we know this is not good enough. You can get into a very negative cycle very quickly and that doesn’t help anyone. There’s not much we can hang our hat on at the minute, but we have to keep on trying to deliver.”
Three home games from five and an away trip to Newcastle, who need a miracle if they are to beat in-form defending champions Saracens at Allianz Park, at least leaves Leicester with their destiny in their own hands. There is little else to cheer around Welford Road at the minute.
Elsewhere this weekend Bath, currently sitting seventh and 10 points ahead of Newcastle, could pull clear of the mire if they can beat west country rivals Bristol in front of an expected crowd of around 60,000 at Twickenham in a game billed as the “Clash”.
But back-to-back victories for Pat Lam’s team over Todd Blackadder’s side in recent times, including a raucously memorable win on the opening day of the current season, will see the men from Ashton Gate travel along the M4 full of confidence. Only Leicester and Newcastle have scored fewer tries than Bath this season while Bristol have not wavered in their determination to play an attractive brand of rugby, even when the heat has come on.
Victory for Lam’s men would go a long way towards guaranteeing their safety and pull Bath back down in the process. There is so much to play for.
It’s shaping up to be the most compelling weekend of Premiership action in memory.
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