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Trio have an eye on Europe

A new battleground in the Aviva Premiership has opened up following the creation of the European Rugby Champions Cup, with three clubs competing for seventh place.

The top six teams automatically qualify for the tournament, while finishing seventh offers a spot among the continent's elite in the form of a two-leg play off against the French Top 14's equivalent.

Wasps currently occupy the key position, but are being pressed hard by Gloucester and Exeter.

The Chiefs could supplant Wasps if they halt their alarming end of season slide down the Premiership by defeating relegation-threatened Worcester at Sixways on Saturday.

"People are aware there's a play-off for the seventh-placed team to get in the new European competition so I'll be disappointed if we're under-motivated for the game," Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said.

"Worcester have got a great motivation as they have given themselves a real lifeline with their win at Newcastle."

Worcester captain Jonathan Thomas has urged the Warriors to follow up their victory over Newcastle with a strong end to a season of disappointment.

The Premiership's bottom club know victory over Exeter is essential if they are to make further inroads into the nine-point gap separating them from the Falcons.

Winning 17-12 at Kingston Park two weeks ago has offered a glimmer of hope, but with fixtures against Bath and Saracens among their remaining four games, their fate appears to have been sealed.

"It has obviously been a frustrating season," number eight Thomas said.

"Losing every week is tough but in the last two months we have really improved and we have been really unlucky.

"We will go into the game trying to win and confident that we can."

Gloucester begin their own push for seventh when they host Bath in the west country derby at Kingsholm with only four points separating them, Wasps, Gloucester and Exeter.

The Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals saw Gloucester and Wasps collide last weekend and Nigel Davies is demanding an immediate response to his team's 36-24 defeat.

"That performance, particularly the first half, was unacceptable and the players have to react to that," the Cherry and Whites boss said.

"Bath is a huge game for us, regardless of last weekend, regardless of what type of season we've had. The Gloucester-Bath game is the biggest game of our season."

Wasps have named England lock Joe Launchbury on the bench and rested in-form number eight James Haskell for their visit to Leicester.

British and Irish Lions second row Geoff Parling has been named on the Tigers' bench in his first club appearance since October, having undergone shoulder surgery.

The weekend's headline fixture is Saracens hosting Northampton at Allianz Park on Sunday in what is likely to be a dress rehearsal for the Premiership final at Twickenham on May 31.

"It's a big game, first against second. We understand that against them there will be only one important match, which will be the semi-final or the final," Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said.


From Belfast Telegraph