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English Premiership: How title race stands as league returns after Six Nations break

Premiership rugby returns on Friday night after an eight-week break for the Six Nations.

There are only six rounds of matches left with nine out of 10 clubs still vying for a coveted top-four place, meaning there is no room for rustiness.

The semi-finals will then be held over the weekend of 1-2 June, with the final at Twickenham on Saturday, 8 June.

BBC Sport analyses the state of play and who is leading the charge for the Premiership title.

Top of the table - Northampton

Sitting pretty seven points clear at the top of the Premiership are Northampton Saints, who are seeking to win a first league title since their 2014 triumph.

Saints are unbeaten in their past six Premiership games, and 10 in all competitions stretching back to November.

The improvement in their defensive record has been noticeable this season to match the exciting attacking force they have long been known for - and it has been paying dividends.

The club start their run-in at Bristol, and while lock Courtney Lawes said their fate is "in our hands", fly-half Fin Smith had a more cautious approach.

"Looking at that table is a little bit daunting," he told BBC Radio Northamptonshire.

"You lose one game and you can be down in seventh or eighth. We're in a great spot at the moment but it's by no means done. We've got to be out of the blocks and back to our best as quickly as we can."

Top four in waiting - Harlequins, Bath, Saracens and Exeter

After Northampton there are seven clubs separated by just seven points, from Harlequins in second down to Bristol in eighth. Harlequins and Bath are tied on 37 points, with Saracens and Exeter a point below.

Harlequins were denied by Leicester from going top of the table in January and face a tricky trip to London rivals Saracens on Saturday - as the team with the highest points tally at home in the division faces the team with the best points tally on the road.

Six-times champions Saracens rarely need extra motivation but with captain Owen Farrell among those set to leave this summer, director of rugby Mark McCall said the club "would love to give them all a good send-off" over the next 10 weeks.

Bath are easily the team most transformed this season and are aiming to finish in the top four for the first time since 2019-20. The team has been rebuilt since Johann van Graan took over in the summer of 2022, but the signing of Scotland fly-half Finn Russell has proved the missing piece to turn them into title contenders again.

Finn Russell holds the ball during a training session with Bath this week
Fly-half Finn Russell (with ball) joined Bath from Top 14 club Racing 92 after the 2023 World Cup

Bath did have the most players of any club called up to the Six Nations with 12, although Van Graan feels he has managed squad rotation well to see them go the distance in the league.

"The way we've rotated our squad, giving players multiple weeks off has been really good. That's not a guarantee you'll be successful the back end of the season, but it certainly helped us to keep guys fresh," he told BBC Radio Bristol.

"Now, after the Six Nations, our team is in a good place from what I can select by."

Two-time champions Exeter have missed out on the top four the past two campaigns and director of rugby Rob Baxter played down expectations of his fledgling side at the start of the season after a host of changes over the summer.

They went into the international break on the back of two league defeats in January, but strong performances from the likes of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Ethan Roots and Ross Vintcent in the Six Nations will boost their confidence.

Catching up - Leicester, Sale and Bristol

Since winning the championship in 2022, Leicester have not had it easy. Four losses in their first five games this season dropped them off the pace, but they moved into the top six for the first time when they beat Harlequins in their last outing.

Boss Dan McKellar, who took over last summer, said while their kicking game and defence is in a good place, they have been "developing areas of the game with the ball" during the break, with weather conditions set to improve going into spring.

The Tigers are looking to bounce back from defeat by Gloucester in the Premiership Rugby Cup final last week when they face the Cherry and Whites at Welford Road on Friday.

Sale, who have also struggled to repeat the performances that drove them to the final last season, return to the Premiership having lost their past three games and without a win in any competition in 2024.

They also have the worst points difference of any team in the the top eight, as the only club to concede more than they have scored.

Director of rugby Alex Sanderson believes his side are strong enough physically, but need to maintain their "emotional consistency" to turn results into wins.

Inconsistency has continued to plague Bristol this season, though a home victory against Northampton on Friday would continue to build on the eight-try win over rivals Bath at the end of January and propel them further into the top-four mix.

A loss would not end their chances, but might see the Bears quickly fall behind those above them.

Completing the picture - Gloucester and Newcastle

While second-bottom Gloucester are not out of the running for the top four, their 22 points puts them 14 behind Saracens in fourth. It would require the Cherry and Whites to win all six of their remaining games and a major slip-up from a team above them.

However, Gloucester return to the league buoyed by ending a club-record run of nine Premiership losses with victory against Sale on 28 January, and claimed the first trophy of the domestic campaign, so a late surge is not out of the question.

Steve Diamond
Former Worceseter boss Steve Diamond has taken over at Newcastle since their last Premiership outing

As for Newcastle, it has been another season to forget, as they languish at the bottom of the Premiership on four points having lost all 12 games.

The Falcons have finished in the bottom three every season since their promotion in 2020, but this is their worst set of results as they sit 18 points behind Gloucester.

Former Sale and Worcester head coach Steve Diamond has taken over as consultant director of rugby since their last match, and has spoken about a three-year plan for Newcastle. He has already begun reshuffling backroom staff and agreeing new player deals for next season.

In the shorter term, Falcons have not won a game at Kingston Park since 24 March 2023, and the three remaining home games against Leicester, Sale and Bath will surely be the primary targets to end the losing streak over the next few weeks.

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