Aviva Premiership: Playoffs add spice as Exeter, Newcastle, Saracens and Wasps chase title

Exeter defeated Wasps in an enthralling Aviva Premiership final last season. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

End of season playoffs are not universally popular. As Aviva Premiership fans prepare for Saturday's semifinals, there are some who no doubt wish that the powers that be would simply coronate Exeter and have done with it.

Those who share that viewpoint could rightly fall back on the comforting support of statistics as they make their case. The Chiefs finished well ahead of the pack after 22 hard-fought regular season games during which they garnered 22 more points than fourth-placed Newcastle, who they meet at Sandy Park with a place in the Twickenham final at stake.

Exeter won more games, secured more bonus points and lost fewer matches than anyone else in the league. If there had been a rule change ahead of the season -- as there was in the RFU Championship -- then no one connected to English rugby would have begrudged Rob Baxter's side lifting the trophy following their final day win over Harlequins.

Were it not for the playoffs, however, we would have been denied some of the most indelible moments of the modern Premiership era. Indeed, Exeter would not have started this season as champions having finished the 2016-17 season second to Wasps on games won.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, Baxter and romantic rugby followers up and down the country, the presence of the end-of-season jamboree ensured that was not the case. Instead, we watched on as Henry Slade produced "one of the great kicks of all time" to help Exeter into the final, where Gareth Steenson's boot secured a nerve-jangling victory.

Baxter, Slade and Steenson are back again and their experience last year in lifting the trophy for the first time to cap their remarkable rise through the divisions, should ensure they don't take the Falcons' challenge lightly.

Newcastle have been crowned champions before, but in 1998 there were no playoffs, and they have not made the Premiership top four since. The Falcons in fact were playing Championship rugby as recently as the 2012-13 season and only bucked a run of three consecutive second-bottom finishes by ending the last campaign eighth.

As Newcastle fans make the considerable trek south-west it is their side, and not an Exeter team containing six England internationals, that is this year's underdog. Dean Richards and Dave Walder deserve immense credit for the way in which they have got the Falcons playing with vim, vigour and more than a little flair.

The latter has been provided mainly, yet not exclusively, by Premiership player of the season Niki Goneva who, at 34, continues to run at opposition defences with the relish of a man more than a decade his junior. His 13 regular season tries were matched only by Worcester's Josh Adams.

Goneva's fantastic form has contributed to a campaign in which Newcastle have won at Gloucester, Leicester and Northampton while selling out Kingston Park on three occasions and attracting 30,174 fans to St James' Park. The momentum generated this season means that a trip to Sandy Park, a ground on which the Falcons are yet to win, holds little trepidation.

"The boys are switched on and ready to roll. There is nothing to fear at all," Dean Richards said ahead of the semifinal. "Everyone is tipping Exeter to win. We've got absolutely nothing to lose going down there, and we will give it our all and see what happens."

Exeter's season has been one of evolution as they look to establish themselves as the force in Premiership rugby. Top spot at the end of the regular season was reward for a consistent campaign in which their ability to win the battles that matter shone through.

Along the way Joe Simmonds has emerged as a potential long-term successor to Steenson at fly-half and his brother, Sam, has cemented his place as a back-row cornerstone for both club and country. The future looks bright as the Chiefs look to maintain their fairy tale.

Not that Exeter will allow themselves to get complacent as they are suddenly cast in the role of favourites. Playoff matches do not just fire the imagination of players who are not used to competing in them.

"I don't think there is any way you can say the mood in the camp is like it is before any other Premiership game," Baxter said this week. "You can try and talk like that, but the reality is that everybody knows it is not. It is a Premiership semifinal and everyone knows it will be different."

Different is exactly what Wasps are hoping for, following their agonising extra-time defeat in last season's final. Dai Young's side arrive in the playoffs in form having lost just two of their final eight regular season games and with the added motivation that Saturday could be Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Guy Thompson's last involvement with the club.

There is a determination to send that trio on their way with a Premiership winner's medal, but sport is no place for sentiment. In their way stands a Saracens side that despite surrendering their European crown can still finish the campaign with a third league title in four attempts.

Mark McCall has also been able to bolster his ranks with returning England No. 8 Billy Vunipola, who will make his first start for club or country since January in north London on Saturday. The hosts will hope Vunipola can complete the 80 minutes unscathed and win his personal duel with Nathan Hughes, as his international rival makes his own comeback from a knee injury sustained in the Six Nations.

Vunipola-Hughes is just one of the mouthwatering head-to-heads that should take place at Allianz Park as two of the country's deepest squads attempt to prolong their season for seven more days. "Saracens are obviously a top side," Wasps boss Young said. "Their record over the last few years speaks for itself, so we know we will have to produce our best to beat them."