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Wednesday, 19 December, 2018

Saracens and Exeter heading for Twickenham final showdown

Sam Simmonds set to sparkle in Chiefs's pack

Exeter celebrate Sam Simmonds' winning try in last year's semi-final against Saracens
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Exeter finished the Premiership regular season top of the table by eight points but second-placed Saracens are 11-10 favourites to win next weekend's grand final at Twickenham and it's hard to oppose them on form.

Last season Sarries went out at the semi-final stage as they were forced to juggle their defence of their domestic and European crowns.

This time they have been able to focus exclusively on regaining their English crown and the evidence is that they are hitting top gear in pursuit of that aim.

Since exiting the European Champions Cup to all-conquering Leinster on April 1 Saracens have won their four remaining league games by an average of 43 points, scoring a total of 31 tries and conceding five.

They've had their wobbles during the season, but five of their six defeats came during or immediately following the international windows. At full strength they are a relentless and ruthless winning machine and 11 of their 16 victories have been by more than 20 points.

Exeter won one game more and racked up more bonus points so there's no doubting their consistency and strength, and it's hard to see beyond an Exeter v Saracens final at Twickenham next Saturday.

The Chiefs won both regular-season clashes between the teams - one during the November internationals and one during the Six Nations.

Saracens v Wasps
BT Sport 1, 12.30pm Saturday

Beaten finalists last year and semi-finalists the season before, Wasps have been great entertainers again this season but appear to lack the steel to finish the job in the unforgiving arena of knockout rugby.

And that steel is one of Saracens' greatest strengths so immediately a double-figure handicap does not look at all fanciful.

A tally of 79 tries scored attests to Wasps' attacking prowess - the same figure as table-toppers Exeter although ten less than Sarries - and with joint playmakers in Danny Cipriani and Jimmy Gopperth plus a thrilling back three of Elliot Daly, Christian Wade and Willie le Roux, they present a constant threat.

But along the way Wasps have shipped 61 tries and their vulnerability in defence should be exposed again by a Sarries side who look to hold a key edge up front and in the set-piece.

Saracens ran out 38-19 winners when Wasps visited Allianz Park in October, scoring four tries to three, and they were even more emphatic in the return in January, scoring five tries to two in a 38-15 success.

Although semi-finals and finals can be tighter affairs, Saracens' last home semi-final two seasons ago was a resounding 47-10 victory over Leicester.

Things might not be quite so emphatic this time and Wasps should make more of an impression on the scoresheet but the handicap looks a comfortable one and the prices for a win by 21 to 30 points seems generous too.

Saracens -12
3pts 10-11 general
Saracens to win by 21 to 30 points
1pt 9-2 Betfair

Exeter v Newcastle
BT Sport 1, 3.30pm Saturday

It's 20 years since Newcastle's star-studded side lifted the Premiership trophy and this is the first time Falcons have appeared in the top four of the final table since then.

In many ways the task facing them is similar to that of Wasps as they travel the length of the country to face defending champions and regular-season winners Exeter.

Newcastle have fared reasonably well against the Chiefs this season, scoring four tries in a 34-24 defeat at Sandy Park and winning 28-20 at home. But the extra focus of a semi-final should bring the best out of the hosts and they look a cut above.

Experienced fly-half Toby Flood returns from a hand injury to line up for Newcastle, while wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti are back having been rested for the final regular-season fixture against Wasps.

But Exeter look too strong in the forwards and the Chiefs pack have a fierce reputation for directing and dominating games. In last year's semi-final against Saracens, Exeter were trailing with minutes to go and it was over to the forwards, who forced a scrum penalty then won the line-out from the resulting kick to the corner and drove over the line for victory.

The ace in the Exeter pack could be number eight Sam Simmonds, who finished the season with 12 tries including one in each fixture against Newcastle. His pace and power to beat defenders as well as his key role at the back of line-out drives make him a standout tryscorer bet.

S Simmonds to score a try
2pts 11-10 Betfair

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Wasps have been great entertainers again this season but appear to lack the steel to finish the job
E.W. Terms
Sky bet