The Pro12 and the Aviva Premiership both reach their conclusion today in what promises to be two colossal battles in Murrayfield and Twickenham respectively.
Saracens v Exeter is up first, the former hoping to add the title of domestic champions to their European honours, the latter in their first ever Premiership Final. I’ve always admired Exeter for their good, solid team ethics and apparent lack of egos. Their rise through English rugby’s leagues in recent years has been so impressive, and they’ve continued to show signs of progression year on year. A win for them today would be no more than they deserve.
However, it’s difficult to look past Saracens as title-holders in waiting. They’re just so powerful and clinical when it matters. The way they dispatched with Leicester Tigers last weekend was brutal, scoring 44 points. Today’s game will be much closer I feel, and the Chiefs will not go down without a fight, but I see Saracens as Champions today.
The Pro12 concludes with Connacht v Leinster. What a magnificent season Connacht have had. They came firing out of the block in September and have stayed in the top four of the league all year, despite their best finish to date being somewhere in the bottom half of the table (ninth, I believe). Truly remarkable. Pat Lam has done an incredible job of instilling a real grittiness to this team. They beat Toulouse last year and began showing signs of shaking off their reputation as a ‘development’ team, but have really surpassed themselves with some shrewd recruitment (the brilliant Bundee Aki) and good old fashioned hard work. Leinster made a late surge to consolidate their place in this season’s play-offs, but I see an upset today – Connacht are on a roll, confidence is high, and I think they have enough passion and grunt to see off the three-time champions and lift their maiden title this afternoon.
In other rugby news, Wales are preparing to take on England for the third time in eight months in an international friendly at Twickenham which takes place tomorrow afternoon. Lots of people are seeing this as little more than a money-spinner for the unions, but Warren Gatland pointed out this week that the match will offer both teams an opportunity to warm-up to test match level ahead of their respective tours to Australasia. With a couple of key Wales players missing (and a couple returning from injury), the men in red have certainly named a strong team to avenge their Six Nations defeat earlier in the year. The notable inclusion of both Alun Wyn Jones and Scott Williams for their first mean Wales will hope to out-muscle their hosts, who name a slightly depleted team in light of today’s Premiership final. With very little at stake, this encounter doesn’t seem to have the usual edge to it, and hopefully this will see a more open game than we have (sadly) become used to when these sides meet. Dan Lydiate leads Wales in the absence of the injured Sam Warburton, who has already been named as Captain for the upcoming tour. Let’s hope we don’t pick up any injuries, as there can be no doubting the quality we will need to show to beat New Zealand in June.