The Six Nations stars return to the Premiership action this weekend as the league takes home first place.
With eight regular rounds of the season to go, Bristol Bears leads Exeter Chiefs to the top of the table. Both seem likely to take one of four playoff places, but the race is elsewhere, although no team will be relegated.
With wild variations in form and many teams of the same level, there is plenty to play for. Here Sportsmail assesses the walk-in …
Bristol boss Pat Lam has seen his side win all but two of the last 14 games of the season
STRONG AT THE TOP
It’s a position Bristol has never held before – up front with a handful of games left.
Undefeated in the league since Feb. 5 and only lost twice in 14 games, Pat Lam’s billionaire-backed Bears are hunting trophies. It’s a notable rise since promotion in 2018, but the Samoan head coach doesn’t take anything for granted.
“It’s not about being at the top of the table now, it’s about being there in June,” said Lam. ‘Everyone has a different journey to get there. Our focus is on our journey and if you are climbing a mountain the second half of the journey is the toughest.
‘When you stop running, climbing and improving, people will jump out of your way. It’s a race to the top. We are not at the top, we are ahead of the race. It is currently in abundance. ‘
Harlequins take on the Bears and the London side itself is on the rise
On Saturday, Bristol will take on Harlequins, who are sitting third and has come to life since the resignation of Paul Gustard. After his departure in mid-January, Quins has won six of the eight league games and scored no fewer than 33 tries.
“Harlequins fly,” said Lam of Bristol’s opponents. ‘This is a real battle we have fought. They scored nine tries against Gloucester. They are going really well. It has to be a great game, with two teams that like to express themselves and play good rugby.
Their senior players – Mike Brown, Danny Care, Joe Marler – are all on fire. They are a big influence and it is great to see them play.
“Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt are good for them too, so if you let those key figures go well, there’s a lot of talent around them to take that lead.”
Exeter will keep it tight at the top, especially with the likes of Henry Slade, Tomas Francis, Stuart Hogg, Jonny Hill and Sam Skinner returning from Testdienst, and No 8 Sam Simmonds scoring for fun.
Of the pursuers, Alex Sanderson’s Sale is fourth, with a six-point buffer for Northampton ahead of today’s games, but they still need to find consistency.
Bristol is quite at the top of the league, but Exeter will test their mettle
THE PUT IN THE MIDDLE
With six points separating the fifth and tenth, the center of the table is littered with inconsistent teams.
Northampton, Leicester and Bath have lost as many as they have won, with the Saints taking in 10 of their 36 points due to Covid’s cancellations – the most of all teams.
Bath still hangs in the middle of the table, despite their star-studded squad – some of whom recently left when, to their credit, the club performed better than usual.
But Bath boss Stuart Hooper has bigger ambitions for his side. “If I had a choice, we wouldn’t be where we are in the table,” he said. When I think about where we’ve been in recent weeks, I feel like we’re in a strong position.
‘We are seventh, but we still have some good games to come, our team is now back on deck and reasonably healthy, so we are in a good position to play from week to week.
Bath lingers halfway through the table, but there are huge ambitions at the club
“I think we can go on and make the top four.”
With the league in February deciding that no side would be relegated in June, the last few rounds have seen many high-scoring, open games.
Strangely enough, the number of points per game has remained around 46 all year round. So while there is no threat of falling into the championship, Hooper finds it too simplistic to say that the Premiership turns into Super Rugby without relegation.
‘It’s an easy assumption. I can assure you that no one goes into a game thinking, “Oh, there’s no relegation, let’s throw the ball around,” he said.
‘I am more inclined to look at the interpretation of the laws. There are significantly fewer roadside penalties than at the start of the season, and the terrain is quite firm, so the ball is thrown around a bit more.
‘The standard has been very good. These guys are entering this competition to win it. Part of their week is developing the squad, but when it comes to the weekend, they want to win. ‘
And so for those who would fear for their lives if the relegation hatch had not been closed.
Gloucester and Worcester are adrift from the pack and floundering – the former cannot continue under George Skivington, the latter behind them with eight out of 18 points without playing due to cancellations.
In this weird year, it’s those two who breathe the greatest sighs of relief who, on the last straight, aren’t a pair of lame horses.
Worcester is fortunate that there is no relegation from the premier league this season