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English Premiership weekend preview: Battle for top-four places increases

We head into Round 17 of the English Premiership this weekend and the fight for the play-off places is intensifying with just two months of the regular season remaining.

Gloucester and Harlequins are sitting just outside of the top four and they do battle in a crucial game at Kingsholm Stadium on Friday at 19:45 - that clash kicking off at the same time as Newcastle Falcons' trip to Bristol Bears.

London Irish, another team still in the hunt for a play-off position, will be hopeful of picking up the win when they travel to 10th-placed Bath on Saturday, while second-placed Sale Sharks' visit to fourth-placed Northampton Saints is a huge contest for both sides.

The weekend's action rounds off with table-toppers Saracens travelling to Leicester Tigers, who are eighth in the standings and just four points behind third-placed Exeter Chiefs ahead of the weekend fixtures.

High-scoring affair at 'Castle Grim'

WhatGloucester v Harlequins
WhereKingsholm, Gloucester
When19:45, Friday 17th February
How to watchBT Sport 1
OddsGloucester 1/2, Tie 20/1, Harlequins 17/10

Both Gloucester and Harlequins are struggling for form ahead of Friday's contest and disappointing runs for the pair have them embroiled in a huge battle to finish in the top four.

The Cherry and Whites lost 24-17 at Exeter last time out, making it three defeats from their last four Premiership matches, and they sit fifth in the table with just a point separating them from Northampton in fourth.

As for Quins, they were thumped 42-24 at London Irish at the end of January and they have now lost four on the trot in the league, a run of results which has seen them drop to sixth, but they remain in the play-off hunt.

Harlequins have struggled in defence this season, as their points against tally of 349 is the fourth-worst in the division, but they do have the fifth-best attack with 327 points scored.

Over half of Gloucester's 289 points scored have come at Kingsholm, which suggests they employ a more attacking style on home turf, so there is the scope that this meeting will be high scoring.

This looks like a tough one to call, but the extra attacking threat of the visitors could see them edge this one, making the 1/1 price for the Harlequins +5 Handicap in Game Betting 3-Way very appealing.

Saints to dent Sale's title bid

WhatNorthampton v Sale Sharks
WhereFranklin's Gardens, Northampton
When15:00, Saturday 18th February
How to watchBT Sport 2
OddsNorthampton 21/20, Tie 18/1, Sale Sharks 5/6

Sale are the closest challengers to table-toppers Saracens, with eight points separating the leading pair, but the Sharks may struggle to keep within reach when they travel to Northampton on Saturday afternoon.

Saints know they can't afford any slip-ups with several teams trying to leapfrog them into the play-off positions and they are in decent league form, winning two of their last three.

Phil Dowson's men did suffer a Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final defeat to London Irish last time out, going down 30-18, but the manner of that defeat was far better than Sale's loss in the other last-four clash.

The Sharks were demolished by Exeter, losing 46-3, and it will be difficult for Alex Sanderson's troops to pick themselves up after that chastening defeat.

Only Sarries have outscored Northampton this season, the latter notching 362 points, but they do have the leakiest defence with no less than 384 points conceded.

Sale have the meanest defence, allowing just 259 points against them, but they have lost their last two away games across all competitions and have conceded 89 points across those defeats.

Saints get nod in this one and the 21/20 for them to win in Game Betting 3-Way appeals, while a +1 Handicap at 10/11 is also worth considering.

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Sarries to cement first place

WhatLeicester Tigers v Saracens
WhereWelford Road, Leicester
When15:00, Sunday 19th February
How to watchBT Sport 1
OddsLeicester Tigers 8/13, Tie 20/1, Saracens 11/8

Saracens have lost just one of their 13 league matches this season and it looks like they will be very hard to catch, having built up an eight-point lead at the summit.

Since that loss to London Irish in December, Sarries have won three consecutive Premiership fixtures - beating Exeter 35-3, Gloucester 19-16 and Bristol 20-19.

With two of those victories coming by three points or less, it hasn't been an easy ride for the table-toppers and another determined performance will be required at Welford Road.

Leicester's play-off hopes have taken a dent in recent weeks, with three straight league defeats seeing them drop down to eighth, although they are still within touching distance of the top four.

The Tigers have struggled in defence, conceding 355 points to leave them with the second-worst record, and they may struggle to keep out a Sarries side who boast the best attack (412).

A Saracens win at 11/8 in Game Betting 3-Way looks like the way to go in this one.

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