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Northampton hunting European qualification

Northampton will aim to secure European Champions Cup qualification on Saturday after what their England flanker Tom Wood admits has been "a very challenging season."

Saints head to Gloucester, where victory would guarantee a top-six Aviva Premiership finish after they missed out on a play-off place for the first time since 2009.

While the title play-off quartet are confirmed - Saracens, Exeter, Wasps and Leicester - heading into the final round of regular season Premiership action, Northampton, Harlequins and Sale Sharks are all scrambling for Champions Cup spots.

The three clubs are separated by just two points, although Quins have another Champions Cup route if they win next Friday's European Challenge Cup final against Montpellier in Lyon.

"We are very motivated to get the job done," Wood said.

"But it it will be a tough ask because Gloucester have just hit some form at the wrong time for us, but we are always confident we can win on the day.

"We have not really got going this season.

"We have had good spells and got some big results and wins, but it has been a very challenging season - I think it has for all of the teams with the World Cup disruption early on, with back-to-back games with no time to rest and rotate the teams like we would with an LV= Cup campaign.

"It really took it out of us, and I think that has showed in our up-and-down performances. We have had some great wins, but we have also really under-performed on occasions and that has let us down.

"We have lost to three bottom-of-the-table teams away from home, and that is not what a championship-winning team is made of, hence why we are not in the top four."

Quins rugby director Conor O'Shea says farewell to the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday in his final Premiership game at the helm - O'Shea moves to Italy this summer as the Azzurri's new head coach - but opponents Exeter will have no intention of seeing him enjoy a winning sending-off.

Exeter need victory to secure a home play-off later this month, which is likely to be against Wasps, who host rock-bottom London Irish this weekend.

The Chiefs beat Wasps in comprehensive fashion last Sunday, and their England international hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie said: "It has been a long season, but we are peaking at the right time.

"The boys are firing on all cylinders at the minute, and we are looking good going into the end of the season.

"We need to go to Quins and perform like we did at the weekend. They are going to be dangerous if they come out and throw the ball around and play their expansive game of rugby with off-loads and get behind our defensive line.

"If we stick to our defensive systems, keep coming up on the outside and put in some big shots, then we should be okay."

Wasps know a five-point maximum against Ricoh Arena visitors Irish would be enough to finish second if Exeter come unstuck, but rugby director Dai Young accepts that home advantage is no longer in his team's control.

"We know it's out of our hands whether or not we get a home semi-final," Young said.

"We can't control events at the Stoop, so we need to focus on getting our performance right on Saturday to at least give us a shot at securing that home semi-final.

"We certainly won't be underestimating Irish and the challenge they will pose. We need to make sure we do our job and get the win."

In Saturday's other Premiership games, Sale visit Newcastle, league leaders and Champions Cup finalists Saracens head to Worcester, while Bath's season of considerable under-achievement ends with a Recreation Ground clash against Leicester.


From Belfast Telegraph