What a week to move to Cardiff... Exeter vs Harlequins, the first Lions game and Wales vs Denmark all live and direct in each pub on every street. Being a Rugby punditry site, maybe we should concentrate on the latter games, and to be honest, the Exeter vs Quins game is an incredibly attractive prospect. It's a battle as old as time, pragmatism vs flair, strategy vs creativity, south west vs south east, you love to see it. Both sides have experienced early season struggles, only to go on incredible runs of form that have led them to this weekend. What can we expect from this incredibly exciting matchup?
The England Audition
You never like to look at a final and think about any other implications than winning, or losing, but with the England tour just around the corner and the Lions squad done and dusted, you have to feel that a couple players on either side are vying for their spots against the US and Canada. The most mouth watering battle is between one of this years standout performers in Marcus Smith, and last years royally celebrated, double-winning captain in Joe Simmonds MBE. Although much of the spotlight has been on Smith's scintillating attacking form and the sheer number of points he's scored this season, Simmonds has gone under the radar, quietly putting in a very efficient, coordinated and precise run of form. It's an unusual duo, as both players are actually capable of doing what the other does so well, but both players have a clear style that they prefer to employ. Funnily enough, unless the game is won from the tee, both 10's might be reliant on strong performances from their centres and scrum halves, in order to put in the vintage showings we expect of them. Maunder vs Care is perhaps equally as important as Simmonds vs Smith if you put the rest of the season's context to centre stage. With Umaga the only 10 currently in the England squad, you have to expect that the winner here, if not both, enter that England dressing room in a weeks time.
The Comeback Factor
If you take into account the last few seasons, Exeter are strong favourites heading into this game, dispatching a really tough Sale side who seemed certain for turnaround-glory, and having vastly more experience in big games than the young Quins team. However, Harlequins have certainly become comeback heroes after pipping Bristol to the point in one of the best Rugby Semi Final's of all time. Even in games that Harlequins went on to lose, they often showed a real fight back in the second half - just take the Leicester game for instance. That game was dead and buried inside of thirty minutes, with Ford putting on a clinic and reminding Rugby fans around the UK why he is one of the best ten's in the northern hemisphere. However, even with Smith having a bit of an off day, Harlequins threw caution to the wind and were perhaps five minutes off clawing back an unbelievable victory. I do predict Exeter to get off to an early lead in this game, even though they would admit to being slow starters themselves this season, but even a converted try or two by the break might not be enough to count Quins out.
Simmonds vs Dombrandt
If you thought Smith vs Simmonds was exciting, then get a load of these two! Both players have so much to play for outside of just a Premiership medal. Simmonds needs to stay fit, prove his worth, and try and find a starting jersey or bench place for the Lions this summer, and Dombrandt needs to a strong performance to help Jones realise what he's missing. It's weird, because both players should, by right, be certain to get run outs this summer, but it still feels as if they have so much to prove. Simmonds will be looking for more tries, that's for certain, as his tally of 20 is already setting ridiculous records for what was thought was possible for any player, let alone a number 8. Dombrandt will want to do what exactly he did to Hughes last weekend, out-manoeuvre, out-think and out-work-rate this Exeter back row. Dombrandt's presence in the lineout could also be key to Quins finding a foothold in that area of the game, as we know Exeter's driving maul is almost unstoppable when given a clean platform.
To Maul, or not to Maul?
We touched upon it just there, but Exeter's gameplan has scarcely altered in three years, and yet we still find ourselves struggling to think of an answer for it. Ewers not being there is obviously a colossal loss, and Skinner only intensifies that, but I'm intrigued to see what Capstick offers as as a far more conventional, all-ball playing flanker. Harlequins managed to contain one of the chunkiest packs in the league last weekend, and arguably won the game due to their eventual dominance in that facet of the game, but Exeter are THE best in the world at this line and drive approach. The key for Quins is not to give away too many penalties, which sounds obviously, but Simmonds will push you back to your 5m line all game if you give him free reign to do so. Exeter are at their most dangerous in the oppositions 22, and although the likes of O'Flaherty can attack from anywhere, Exeter are known for how clinical they are, not for how audacious they are.
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A Quins Double?
It definitely could be on the cards. Riding off of the good fortune of the female side, beating Saracens on the final day to lift the Allianz Premier 15's cup, Harlequins will feel empowered by what their club could be able to achieve this season. Losing a coach like Gustard so early into the season must have been hard, and all of the talk about Smith's contract situation and other players potentially jumping ship did lead us here at Scrum Recap to writing them off for the rest of the season. This turnaround however is unbelievable and a lot of neutral supporters will be in their corner, wishing them on their way (anything to break this Exeter-Saracens title winning deadlock we find ourselves in). However, Wasps did find themselves in this position last year, with Dai Young leaving a black hole in his wake, whilst Blackett took on the mantle and duly performed excellently. Wasps did have a ton of injuries which did hurt them on the final day, but exhaustion from coming that close from so far did seem to hurt their decision making in the last twenty, could that be the same for Quins?
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