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Monday, 12 November, 2018

No let-up from Saracens with finish line in sight

Wasps look shaky favourites for visit of champions

Saracens celebrate a try against Bristol
1 of 1

Wasps v Saracens
BT Sport 2, 4pm Saturday
Northampton v Harlequins
BT Sport 3, 4pm Saturday

Top spot in the final Premiership regular-season standings is up for grabs but Saracens have more than that on their mind as they face leaders Wasps at the Ricoh Arena.

While the rest of the teams in the playoff mix know they have a week off before the semi-finals, Sarries face Clermont in the European Champions Cup next Saturday and it is no surprise to see a host of big names missing from their line-up.

Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, Brad Barritt and Chris Ashton are all rested while Jamie George and Alex Goode are on the bench, but it may be unwise to assume coach Mark McCall has simply decided to sacrifice a home semi-final.

McCall would probably be confident his team can go anywhere and win - even more so if they have just sealed back-to-back European crowns - but the one thing he can be even more sure of is the depth of his squad and the ability of his coaching team to ensure the same high standard of performance whoever is on the pitch.

Wasps have led the way for most of the season but they seem to have hit something of a crisis of confidence as the playoffs loom. They have scored freely but leaked points steadily all season and that's a formula that's unlikely to get them past clinical Saracens in the playoffs.

With that in mind the Wasps players spoke last week about tightening up their game and finding the balance between attack and defence, before they were turned over 32-13 at Harlequins.

This clash could have the makings of a phoney war as the teams could well meet again in the playoffs and Wasps don't look safe favourites, certainly not giving up a handicap as big as nine points.

As well as the tussle for top spot there's a battle for sixth and the last automatic qualifying place for the European Champions Cup, which will probably go to the winners of the Northampton v Harlequins showdown at Franklin's Gardens.

Quins put a lot into their final home match of the season as the Stoop said farewell to Nick Evans in that big win over Wasps, and they are sure to find the Saints similarly fired-up. The hosts are six-point favourites.

Away from the TV action there's a significant clash at Kingsholm as Exeter, who recorded a seventh consecutive bonus-point victory last week, are gunning for another win that could see them finish the regular season top of the pile if other results go their way.

Opponents Gloucester have not followed Saracens in resting players for their own European adventure - the Cherry & Whites face Stade Francais in the final of the Challenge Cup on Friday - but it would be no surprise if the players' minds are elsewhere. The fully-focused Chiefs should look to pull away by the end.

With three playoff places booked the only semi-final question mark is over who will finish fourth - Leicester are in the driving seat and are three-point favourites at Worcester, where a losing bonus point will be enough to deny Bath, who give up two points at Sale.

Recommendations
Saracens +9
1pt 10-11 general
Exeter -4 on second-half handicap
1pt 10-11 Hills

Sarries face Clermont in the European Champions Cup next Saturday and it is no surprise to see a host of big names missing from their line-up
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