ESPN's rugby predictions: Games of the week, potential upsets & more
The Aviva Premiership, PRO14 and French Top 14 are drawing to a close and with playoff places up for grabs it is time for teams to stake a claim to Champions Cup places or be left to fight it out in the Challenge Cup next season.
With Leinster, Scarlets, Munster and Racing 92 all looking ahead to the Champions Cup semifinals in just over a week's time, their focus might be on matters other than their domestic seasons. Meanwhile with
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Premiership (Sean Nevin): Jack Nowell. The Exeter winger made his big comeback to the Chiefs side when he came off the bench to great effect last weekend against Gloucester. He hadn't played for his club since December after a call-up to Eddie Jones' Six Nations squad and subsequent injury during England training. Running over two tries in the Chief's demolition of Gloucester, Nowell looked rampant, and with Chiefs playing London Irish this weekend, there will be plenty more opportunities for Nowell to run riot this weekend if he starts.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): John Cooney. The Ulster scrum-half has done as much as he possibly could to put his hand up for Irish selection with an outstanding season. It was never going to be easy to replace Ruan Pienaar, but he's done well. The top points scorer and most try assists in this year's competition still has ambitions of securing a playoff spot. Sitting eight points behind third-placed Edinburgh, maximum points in their next two games is a must.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Jesse Mogg (Montpellier). Vern Cotter put his fullback on the transfer list a couple of months ago due to ever-tightening Top 14 player-quota regulations. Since then, Mogg - reportedly a target for ambitious Pau - has racked up the impressive performances. His two-try outing against La Rochelle last weekend probably would have garnered greater recognition if not for the match-winning exploits of Castres' Julien Dumora. But it did prompt something Cotter to backtrack and hint that Mogg's departure may not be as set in stone as it appeared. A couple more decent runs before the end of the season, and he may not be looking for a new club any longer.
Game of the weekend
Prem: Newcastle vs. Sale, Friday, 7.45 p.m.
It is the business end of the season, and with just three games to go in the regular season, 5th meets 6th with the playoffs in sight. Sale will arrive at Kingston Park full of confidence after recovering from 17 points down to beat Wasps 28-27 in a thriller at AJ Bell Stadium, but the same cannot be said about Newcastle. A shock defeat to Worcester meant they loosened their grip on a playoff spot, dropping to 5th and letting the chasing pack back into the race. This is the definition of a must-win game - win, and you are two games from the playoffs - lose, and you'll need a miracle to make it to the final four.
PRO14: Edinburgh vs. Scarlets, Saturday, 3.15 p.m.
Edinburgh sit six points behind second-placed Scarlets in conference B and with the Welsh region playing Leinster in the Champions Cup next week, it is a great chance to make up ground on Scarlets, and keep their slight hopes of second-place alive, while also keeping distance between them and Ulster in fourth. Richard Cockerill has turned a team that was overlooked and seemed destined for slogging it out for Challenge Cup accolades into one that is battling for the PRO14 playoffs.
Top 14: Toulouse vs Racing 92, Sunday, 3.50 p.m.
So. Many. Choices. It's as if mystic scheduling wizards at the Top 14 augured the future and back-loaded the season with a head-spinning array of crucial matches. How otherwise could they know so many matches would matter? This weekend, there's the galacticos' game in Marseille as Toulon take on Montpellier; a basement brawl between Oyonnax and Brive; Pau face Agen in the southwest derby; and a play-off place up for grabs as La Rochelle entertain Castres. In fact, there's nothing riding on only one match - Clermont vs Bordeaux. But it's the final game of the weekend, which pits third against second, that gets the nod this week. It should be an absolute screamer at Ernest Wallon.
Prem: Saracens vs. Bath, Saturday 3 p.m.
It is hard to see a potential upset among this week's fixtures, but one could well come in North London, where an out-of-sorts Bath travel to Saracens. This has been a disappointing season for Todd Blackadder's side - they would have been hoping to be in playoff contention, but they are way off the pace. They have only won three games in all competitions since the start of February, but they will be determined to claim the scalp of a Saracens side who are looking to position themselves as well as possible for the playoffs.
PRO14: Leinster vs. Treviso, Saturday, 7. 45 p.m.
Treviso are still battling it out for a chance at making the Champions Cup playoff in the PRO14. A point behind Ulster, despite having played a game more, Treviso need victory against Leinster. With the Irish province facing Scarlets in the Champions Cup next week, it will be hard not for them to have one eye on that clash. If they do, Treviso could pounce for a shock victory over Leinster. But with just four points separating them and second-placed Scarlets, Leinster won't want to lose their home PRO14 semifinal without a fight.
Top 14: Lyon vs Stade Francais Saturday, 7.45 p.m.
A bold call, perhaps, with Pierre Mignoni's well-drilled Lyon enjoying home comforts as they eye an all-important play-off place. But, stupidly late in the season, Stade suddenly look a different side from the forlorn outfit that shipped 40 points at home against Pau in the Top 14 in February. Maybe it's down to that epic performance in defeat against the same side in an away Challenge Cup quarter-final. A Stade win here would not only hole Lyon's play-off chances below the waterline, it would give the visitors more vital breathing space from the horrors of a bottom two finish.
Biggest weekend for...
Prem: Wasps. After squandering a 17-point lead against Sale last weekend, they have now lost two in a row, going from being likely to be in the playoffs to a team that faces an almighty battle. Their fate is still in their own hands, but Dai Young's side need to reclaim their mojo. A visit from Worcester should be the perfect game to get back on track - but underestimate the Warriors at your peril -- look where that got Newcastle last week.
PRO14: So much to play for between PRO14 playoffs and Champions Cup qualification this weekend. In Conference A, Glasgow are all but secured top spot, seven points ahead of Munster with a game in hand. Munster, second, six ahead of Cheetahs, whom they place Friday, while Cardiff, eight points ahead of Ospreys, will hope for the third automatic Champions Cup spot. In Conference B, Leinster are four ahead of Scarlets, while Ulster and Treviso have hopes of the fourth place and Champions Cup playoff. All it took to make the PRO14 interesting was to split it in two.
Top 14: Castres Olympique. A seven-match winning streak towards the end of 2017 saw Castres charge up to third in the table at New Year. But 2018 has been a major letdown. They are currently eighth, hanging on to the coat tails of the playoffs, but are away this week at La Rochelle and head to Toulon for the penultimate round of the season after next week's European semi-finals, and then will face Oyonnax at home. That's effectively three finals in a row for their regular-season run-in.