Bristol and Exeter on road to summer final but Harlequins are on hot streak

Sport

Even without the assistance of Covid-19 this would have been a unique season. Never before has a domestic campaign in England held its final at the end of June, while the inaugural Rainbow Cup, which commences this week, also involves a relative leap into the unknown. People talk about the potential benefits of summer rugby but, in truth, it is already here.

With barely any rain in the forecast for the immediate future and surfaces already firming up, it is another reason to suspect the closing furlongs of the Premiership will be played at a cracking gallop. This will suit certain sides more than others, but on this occasion the entire league can ready itself for a sprint finish without needing to fret about the constraining fear of relegation.

At the same juncture with six rounds still to go last season, the exact same trio of clubs occupied the top three. Six of last year’s final top seven are also poised to renew their season tickets, the exception being London Irish at Wasps’ expense. Given the fact last season’s final did not take place until October, Covid-19 having played havoc with the schedule, maybe that is not wholly unexpected.

This time around, though, the leading three – Exeter, Bristol and Sale – do not have to worry about the parallel distractions of Europe. Even the club currently occupying fourth spot, Harlequins, are playing with as much freedom as anyone. It makes for a brakes-off, freewheeling run-in, as underlined by the continuous three-minute spell in the Sale v Gloucester game on Saturday. Had it lasted any longer every front row forward on the field would have sunk to their knees.

Even so, fast and furious will not entirely guarantee the trophy. As the pace intensifies, stamina is also going to be required, plus the ability to retain a modicum of defensive shape and close-quarters control. Quins have scored three more Premiership tries than Bristol so far this season but, perhaps more tellingly, they have conceded 20 more as well.

This might also be a good moment, with Bristol 12 points clear, to recall that the team finishing top of the table has gone on to become champions just six times in the 18 years since the knockout format was first adopted. The side finishing second in the regular season, on the other hand, has ended up hoisting the trophy 11 times with only Saracens, fourth in 2015 when they ended up also winning in Europe, disproving the rule that the champions must come from the top two. If the table already hints at a Bristol v Exeter final, so does recent history.

But hang on. This season’s rhythm is different: for the first time in these parts, the days will be growing shorter by the time the final takes place on 26 June. If some spectators may be back by the time the semi-finals are played, home knockout advantage is also not what it used to be, as Exeter discovered to their cost earlier this month against Leinster. Maybe the Irish province would have won at a sold-out Sandy Park anyway but it would have been an even tougher ask.

Expect this season’s title, then, to be won by the side who stays best up the sun-soaked final hill. Normally that side would almost certainly be Exeter, whose success has long been founded on a military work ethic and superior fitness that was so instrumental in the closing stages of their big European knockout games last season.

At times this winter, though, the defending champions have found it difficult to summon up the relentless energy that drove them to their double success last October. The lack of a pre-season did not help and some of their key forwards have been racking up the miles. Sam Simmonds, such a reliable force, is set to start his 28th high-intensity game since mid-August this Friday. Even for such a fit individual, there has to be a slight drop off.

Bristol, too, beat Exeter 20-7 at Sandy Park in January and have only lost once in the league since the opening weekend. They are currently so spoiled for choice that even Max Malins, on loan from Saracens and perhaps the most dashingly in-form English player in the land, is not certain to start at 15. Charles Piutau is some player, as is Semi Radradra and the other loanee, Ben Earl, looked back to his considerable best in Newcastle on Saturday.

It is the depth of their squad, though, that will propel Bristol to the top of the regular season pile this year. Supposed squad men such as Andy Uren, Ioan Lloyd and Dan Thomas have been consistently influential while Piers O’Conor and Siva Naulago must both be pushing for team of the season inclusion. The only caveat is whether some of the Bears’ older, more grizzled forwards can keep on trucking at a time when, traditionally, they would be about to sink into a deckchair.

The same is true of Sale, so good against the Scarlets in Europe before being cut back down to size by La Rochelle the following week. They will re-emerge even stronger next season, as will Northampton and a clutch of other mid-table dwellers, but it is Quins who currently look best placed to finish third and book a possible semi-final with the Chiefs at Sandy Park.

The Londoners also enjoy a firm, dry track and their 8-9-10 combination of Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care and Marcus Smith have been as good as any other trio over the past couple of months. The finishing ability of Luke Northmore, who not long ago was working in a Tavistock pasty shop, has also been conspicuous and Chiefs’ lineout will also need to sharpen up if their Premiership title is to be retained.

All that said, the Breakdown’s end-of-season domestic silverware predictions remain unchanged: a Bristol v Exeter final, with the Chiefs’ hard-earned big occasion knowhow narrowly proving decisive, and Saracens to retain their women’s Premier XVs title. The Rainbow Cup? Whatever a competition is called – and regardless of how many games the South African provinces manage – stick a few rand on Leinster. Don’t be surprised, either, to find yourself contemplating rugby on midsummer’s night.