Ollie Phillips: Premiership play-offs full of key battles and intriguing duels

 
Ollie Phillips
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Wasps v Northampton Saints - Aviva Premiership
Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson is just one player facing an intriguing battle during Saturday's Premiership play-off clash with Saracens (Source: Getty)

Not only is Saracens versus Wasps an intriguing contest in its own right but there will be battles, duels and emotion all over field as the Premiership play-offs get underway at Allianz Park on Saturday.

The talismanic and creative genius of Danny Cipriani, who has been recalled to the England squad for next month’s tour of South Africa, will go head-to-head with his Saracens counterpart Owen Farrell.

Farrell was restored to fly-half from inside centre for England’s last match, and Cipriani, having finally been given another international chance, has the opportunity to shine against a potential rival and the incumbent No10.

Scrum-halves Dan Robson and Ben Spencer, some of the new kids on the England block, will also go up against each other with scope to impress head coach Eddie Jones before the start of the tour.

Players are not often afforded such opportunities and, assuming Ben Youngs will be Jones’s first-choice No9, it’s a chance to stake an early claim for a place on the bench. There is also second row pair Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje – the contests keep on coming.

I’m sure flanker James Haskell, who was omitted from England’s travelling party to South Africa, will feel he has a point to prove and will want to show his true colours.

The play-offs are something of a last hurrah in a Wasps jersey for Haskell, Cipriani and back-row forward Guy Thompson, who are departing the Ricoh Arena for Northampton, Gloucester and Leicester respectively at the end of the season.

In terms of the game itself, a case can be made for an upset and a Wasps victory because Dai Young’s side are phenomenal in attack and the likes of Robson, Cipriani, Christian Wade and Willie le Roux can destroy teams.

But while attack is the heritage of this Wasps team and they throw the ball around from everywhere, defensively they are too frail, lapse far too often and concede too many soft tries.

Conversely, Saracens, who I believe have a slightly more dominant pack than Wasps, are watertight defensively, physical in the tackle and are brutal in that area of the game.

Cipriani has come a long way defensively but I’d still rather have Farrell, while Robson is not particularly brilliant around the fringes. Compelling arguments can be made for Wasps, but I think Sarries will be too good for them.

Turning to the second game of the day and Exeter against Newcastle at Sandy Park, irrespective of the Falcons’ bumper season, I envisage the defending champions being far too formidable at home.

A key strength of Exeter is their continuity. Once they get to the 22, they are ruthless. They keep the ball for phase after phase, they are immense at the breakdown and tend to come away with points – it’s an area of the game that Exeter boss Rob Baxter prides himself on.

If Newcastle are to have a sniff then they are going to have to be relentlessly disruptive at the breakdown. Their back-row will need to secure the ascendency against the likes of Sam Simmonds and Don Armand.

Doubts also remain over the fitness of fly-halves Toby Flood and Joel Hodgson, who are battling hand and knee injures respectively, and without a recognised No10 to orchestrate territorial pressure, it will be very difficult for them.

Ollie Phillips is leading a group of inspiring individuals to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this October. To join him visit https://www.360-expeditions.com/expeditions/ollie-phillips-kilimanjaro/

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