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Wednesday, 24 October, 2018

Chiefs can pull away in quest for home semi-final

Saints have eyes on final-round battle

Winger Jack Nowell returns for Exeter
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Exeter v Northampton
BT Sport 2, 3pm Saturday
Ospreys v Ulster
Sky Sports 1, 3pm Saturday

While Exeter are flying high and aiming for a home playoff semi-final, opponents Northampton can aim no higher than a mid-table finish - but mid-table is a pretty hot battleground with two rounds left to go in the Premiership.

The top six in the table qualify for the European Champions Cup while the team finishing seventh go into a tricky four-team playoff with Top 14 and Pro12 teams, so the pressure is on the Saints to hold on in sixth.

Harlequins, who lie directly beneath them, were in action against leaders Wasps on Friday and visit Franklin's Gardens in the final round so Northampton have reason to be confident their fate is in their own hands regardless of how they fare on this tricky trip to Devon.

Exeter's unbeaten run stretches to 13 league matches going back to October and they are gunning for an unprecedented seventh consecutive bonus-point win. Ten-try winger James Short misses out but with recently selected British and Irish Lion Jack Nowell coming in to replace him they still pack plenty of firepower.

The Saints travel without fly-half Stephen Myler and rampaging number eight Louis Picamoles. Both are listed as injured and given they are two of Northampton's most influential players it's easy to conclude coach Jim Mallinder is taking no chances with their fitness with next week's showdown with Quins in mind.

Exeter are assured of their playoff place but they look sure to face Saracens and will want that semi-final to be at home so there can be no question of dropping their pace.

Northampton have made a habit of falling away in matches so the bet here is to take the hosts to cover a 3.5-point second-half handicap.

Also in the Premiership Saracens given up a handicap of more than 30 points at home to bottom side Bristol while Leicester are 16-point favourites at home to Sale.

Ospreys and Ulster are locked in a battle for Pro12 playoff berths and they face off at the Liberty Stadium in what looks set to be a fiercley contested battle.

The Welsh outfit have lost their last four matches, three in the league beginning with an embarrassing 13-9 reverse at lowly Treviso, and have named a strong side, with Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar combining in the half-back slot, although lock Alun-Wyn Jones is injured.

But confidence could be shaky after that poor run while Ulster look primed to come out firing. With Ruan Pienaar pulling the strings and a back three of Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Charles Piutau, Ulster have a real cutting edge and this could be close.

Munster have made ten changes for their trip to Treviso, while Connacht coach Pat Lam has made a reshuffle of a similar scale for their home encounter with third-placed Scarlets.

Recommendations
Exeter -3.5 on second-half handicap
3pts 10-11 Paddy Power
Ulster +4
1pt 10-11 bet365, Sky Bet

Exeter's unbeaten run stretches to 13 league matches going back to October and they are gunning for an unprecedented seventh straight bonus-point win
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