ESPN's rugby predictions: Games of the week, potential upsets & more
The Aviva Premiership, PRO14 and Top 14 are drawing to a close but with playoff and Champions Cup places up for grabs there is still plenty to play for across Europe's big rugby leagues.
Leicester and Newcastle will battle it out in a clash that could end one side's semifinal chances, while Saracens can relegate London Irish with victory on Sunday. There are still PRO14 quarterfinal spots up for grabs and in France, a slip up from second-placed Toulouse could see Racing 92, Toulon or Lyon get into the automatic semifinal places with two weeks remaining.
Player to watch
Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Gary Graham (Newcastle). The Scotland-born England hopeful has been in fine form since returning to the Newcastle starting XV for the win over Sale. A try-scoring performance against the Sharks was followed by a brilliantly destructive display in the Challenge Cup semifinal against Gloucester. His mammoth defensive effort -- that included 18 tackles -- could not swing the match's momentum towards the Falcons, as Dean Richards' side crashed out. But with their top-four hopes on the line at Welford Road, you can expect Graham to put in another committed performance.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets). As the countdown to Beirne's departure from Scarlets nears, the powerful forward insisted his only focus is on finishing the his time in Wales with back-to-back domestic titles. Wayne Pivac's team were given a large piece of humble pie against Leinster in the Champions Cup last Saturday and perhaps showed some naivety in their tactics. Scarlets need victory this weekend to secure a home quarterfinal, with Edinburgh hot on their heels. Beirne will be crucial if they are to retain the PRO14 title.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Ben Botica (Oyonnax). The pressure on the New Zealander, the Top 14's leading points scorer this season, must be immense at this point in what has been a tough season for Oyonnax. Not that you'd know it to watch him play. Of the 524 points the side has accrued in the league, Botica has scored 296 -- including 65 penalties, 33 conversions and seven tries -- at an average of just over 14 per game. This weekend is another crucial one, Oyonnax are at home to Lyon, and need a win to stay above Brive in the automatic drop slot.
Game of the weekend
Prem: Leicester Tigers vs. Newcastle Falcons, Friday, 7.45 p.m
The hosts had looked on a charge to their customary playoff place before Northampton halted a run of five successive Premiership wins a fortnight ago. That defeat allowed Newcastle to leapfrog them into fourth with just two games to go. In the intervening week, the Falcons lost their Challenge Cup semifinal to Gloucester and Friday night's match could be the defining moment in an encouraging season. Win by more than seven points and a playoff spot is theirs, lose ahead of a final-round encounter with Wasps and it's advantage Leicester.
Conference B provides a lot of drama this weekend as Edinburgh still have hopes of a home quarterfinal. While they sit a point behind Scarlets, defeat and a bonus-point win for Ulster would see the Scottish side miss out on the playoff series altogether. It is not only a place in a playoffs that is up for grabs as third place will also guarantee a place in next season's Champions Cup, while fourth place goes into a playoff which would currently see Ulster face Ospreys. If only they were on at the same time to provide extra tension.
Top 14: Toulouse vs La Rochelle Sunday, 3.50 p.m.
Second-placed Toulouse have made a habit of high-scoring Sunday afternoon outings at the Ernest Wallon. The weekend before the European semifinals, they played out a 69-pointer against Racing 92 -- and this match, too, has all the hallmarks of a high-scoring affair. The visitors slipped out of the all-important top six when they lost at home to Castres last time out, and need a win to get their playoff challenge back on track. But Toulouse have a tenuous hold on second -- which includes a bye to the semifinals. Another Pink City thriller is in store.
Prem: London Irish vs. Saracens, Sunday, 3 p.m.
If the relegation battle is going to go down to the final weekend then the Exiles must beat Saracens Sunday. That would seem a tall order against one of the continent's best teams -- one that has designs on the Premiership title -- especially considering the Exiles have won only three matches all season. Yet, it has long been fight or flight time for Irish, and they have been able to pick up results over the last few weeks. Unfortunately for them, a win might still not be enough if Worcester beat Harlequins.
PRO14: Southern Kings vs. Cheetahs Saturday 2 p.m.
Thankfully for those invested in South African PRO14 rugby, the Cheetahs have been the saving grace to the Kings' abysmal weekly displays. The Kings have managed just one win this season as they have picked up 11 points in 20 games. But if there is a match to get the Kings riled up for, this is it. It will be high scoring, and the defending won't be pretty -- if at all existent -- but the minnows could overthrow their more illustrious rivals. It would be a timely boost for the Kings as surely even the most ardent South African club rugby admirers must have questioned why they are in the competition.
Top 14: Stade Francais vs Brive Saturday, 7.45 p.m.
Bottom-of-the-table clashes are often the most intriguing at this time of the season -- and this one has all the hallmarks of an eight-pointer, as basement side Brive head to the 12th-placed Parisians, with both sides in desperate need of a win. It's last-chance saloon time for Brive: lose this weekend and, if Oyonnax win at home, it's over. But Heyneke Meyer's future side also need a win to avoid slipping into the bottom two. This one will be tense.
Big weekend for
Prem: Wasps. A report in the Daily Mail about player unrest in Coventry was met with an official statement Thursday lunchtime in which director of rugby Dai Young insisted his side remained fully focused on "pushing hard to reach the playoffs". Young pointed to the fact that 10 players have signed new deals with the club since September as evidence that the story was false, yet it is on the pitch against Northampton this Sunday that the players can give the biggest rebuke to the rumours. Fans will surely be hoping for a committed, convincing victory to secure a top-four spot and allay any fears.
PRO14: After Leinster cast aside the challenge of Scarlets last weekend, the Welsh region needs a big weekend to secure a home semifinal in the PRO14. Defeat could cast further doubts over a team that is set to lose Scott Williams, Tadhg Beirne and John Barclay at the end of the season. They need to show prospective players that their run to the Champions Cup last four was not just a fluke. Last year Leinster crashed out of the PRO14 playoffs at the hands of Scarlets after the Irish province lost to Clermont at the same stage in Europe. They must bounce back or it will be a long summer in west Wales.
Top 14: Take your pick from Lyon, Castres, Pau, and La Rochelle. Two rounds of the Top 14 to go, and these four sides are in an epic dogfight for the playoff places. At this stage of the season, position is nine-tenths of the law -- which gives Lyon and Castres a slight advantage. As does the fact all four face tough away matches. Lyon are at Oyonnax, Castres visit Toulon, Pau head to Montpellier, and La Rochelle go to Toulouse. If any one of them could spring an unlikely upset, it would be decisive. And, before anyone starts, there's also a lot at stake for Stade Francais, Oyonnax and Brive -- but they have been covered already.