Round 17 will cannon-ball onto screens on Friday evening with a blistering top-of-the-table clash at Ashton Gate.
Number one-placed Bristol Bears host defending champions Exeter Chiefs in what is sure to be a fiery clash as Chiefs fight to close the gap on their rivals.
Bristol are currently sitting pretty at the top of the log after 13 victories from 16 outings, an effort which has yielded a total of 66 points. Exeter have emerged victorious in 11 of their 16 fixtures, amassing a total of 54 points in the process.
Bristol are thus enjoying an enviable 12 point cushion on their rivals which has them looking in tip-top shape as the play-offs edge closer.
Exeter need not look very far over their shoulder to know that Sale and Harlequins are only four points behind them. Both of the latter teams are expected to win their fixtures this round, putting Rob Baxter’s men in a position the precariousness of which will have them somewhat agitated come kick-off at 19:45 tomorrow.
Good wins were enjoyed by both sides in Round 16 with Exeter turning the screws on Wasps (43-13) while Bristol doubled the score of Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park (34-17).
What makes this match-up especially interesting is the closeness of the rivalry in recent years. The last five clashes between the two look as follows:
Round 7: Exeter 31-29 Bristol
Round 12: Exeter 14-9 Bristol
Round 4: Exeter 17-20 Bristol
Round 16: Exeter 25-22 Bristol
Round 6: Exeter 7-20 Bristol
The most recent contest was one that Pat Lam and co. will savour for some time to come. After an energetic physical battle, the blast of the final whistle was music to Bristol ears as they had managed what few teams have managed to do of late – pull off a victory at Sandy Park.
Bristol boast a very healthy mix of talent with names such as John Afoa, Steven Luatua and Ben Earl up front (to name but a few) and blistering finishers such as Luke Morahan and the fantastic Semi Radradra amongst the backs.
Pat Lam had the following to say ahead of the match:
"They're European champions, Premiership champions, they are the team
"Rob's done a tremendous job with Ali Hepher, the two of them have worked really well together and we were so pleased for them last year in what they achieved.
"Our full attention is trying to get to the top of the Premiership mountain and these guys are the guys who have consistently been there for the last few years.
"We've always had big, big games. In my time here every game's been one score, we got out to two scores down there last time, but I'm expecting much of the same again, a really good battle right to the wire."
Speaking to BBC Sport, Exeter director of rugby, Rob Baxter, said:
"If you look at the home game here that Bristol won, it was level at half time, the game never really got away from us despite us being a little bit flat.
"So I would think really the reality for us is to make sure we have bags of energy, bags of emotion in the game, we really look forward to playing and an understanding that the conditions are improving all the time.
"This is the season that we're used to. We've won Premierships and finished top of the table or second in the table for quite a few years now in this kind of a format where you start to play more and more in improving conditions, faster pitches with more rugby being played.
"This is what should suit us, so let's really look forward to the game getting quicker, faster, more action, more ball in play, more things going on. Let's really look to thrive on that."
With 6 games remaining in the @premrugby and the battle heating up for the top 4, here is a look at the difficulty of the teams final 6 games.— Esportif Intelligence (@EsportifIntel) April 23, 2021
Hardest run in - @SaleSharksRugby, @BathRugby & @LeicesterTigers - FDR 19
Easiest run in - @SaintsRugby & @Harlequins - FDR 15 pic.twitter.com/tpny7brjDr
Round 17 is clearly saving its best for first with this encounter which promises to be a humdinger. While the scoring might be low – as often happens when two competent outfits come up against each other – the battle will one of gruelling intensity, especially amongst them men with numbers 1 to 8 on their backs.
While Bristol can technically “afford” a loss, they will be well aware of the importance of building confidence going into the play-offs – especially against a team they may well meet in that phase of the competition. Exeter have it all to play for and will simultaneously attempt to reel Bristol in in terms of points and maintain their delicate lead on the eager Harlequins and Sale Sharks.