Victory over visitors Sale Sharks on Saturday would see the reigning champions finish top heading into next month’s play-offs, when they are guaranteed a home tie.
“Although we don’t necessarily need the points on the table, if you look at it like that, the important thing is the guys remain ultra-competitive about keeping the jersey as they go through,” Hepher said.
“They have to fight, they have to scrap, and their level of performance will be scrutinised and we have to see who is performing best when it comes to those semi-finals.
“It’s the perfect test for us going into these last few weeks.
“Sale have been physical, aggressive and abrasive over the last few weeks, so we’ve got to make sure that we are on the front foot from the outset, play the style of Rugby we want to play, and be nice and direct so that we capitalise on any space that we get.”
Steve Diamond has no doubt that Sale will require victory in their quest for a top-six finish and automatic Champions Cup qualification.
Sale are currently seventh, two points behind Gloucester, with their final game being a home clash against Leicester next week.
“The reality is that we lost against Bath in the last minute and at Newcastle in the last minute,” Diamond told www.salesharks.com.
“That has done us over in terms of finishing fourth, and I think we need to win both our remaining games.
“We are still a bit of a nearly team in my opinion, so our recruitment over the summer will be such that we need some experience to come in to alleviate situations so that we don’t give teams a 20-point start or lose in the last minute.
“The lads have certainly not put the cue in the rack. They are not on their holidays, and if we can get a win at the weekend it will probably set up the biggest game in the competition against Leicester on the last day.”
Bath’s hopes of a top-six finish are slender to say the least, with bonus point victories required in their last two fixtures against Gloucester at Kingsholm on Saturday and home to London Irish, and Gloucester collecting nothing from Bath or final day opponents Saracens, plus Sale losing twice.
“We’ve got to be really smart tactically because Gloucester do play,” Bath Rugby director Todd Blackadder said.
“They throw the ball around a lot, but actually a strength can often be turned into a weakness if we defend really well.
“We are in a position where we’ve got nothing to lose, so we’ve got to play.”
Gloucester, who will face Cardiff Blues in the European Challenge Cup final on May 11, can still secure a play-off place, but they have no margin for error.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Worcester host Harlequins – a Warriors win or losing bonus point would seal London Irish’s relegation fate – and Sunday’s action sees Irish entertain Saracens and Northampton head to Wasps.
Saracens’ England number eight Billy Vunipola is set for a first appearance since breaking his arm in January after being named on the bench, with Saracens guaranteed a home play-off game if they triumph in bonus point fashion, while Wasps know that victory over Saints further strengthens their top-four hopes.
Fixtures (AED times)
Friday April 27
22:45 Leicester v Newcastle
Saturday April 28
18:00 Exeter Chiefs v Sale Sharks
18:00 Gloucester v Bath
18:00 Worcester v Harlequins
Sunday April 29
18:00 London Irish v Saracens
18:00 Wasps v Northampton
Drain-layer lives the dream
While the Blues injury crisis has put coach Tana Umaga under pressure, it has also provided a welcome change from laying drains for winger Jordan Hyland.
The 28-year-old had a promising junior career derailed by three ligament injuries and was working with a drainage firm and playing semi-professional rugby for Northland when he received a call-up from the Blues.
He scored two tries on his Super Rugby debut against the Sunwolves and experienced first-hand the intensity of a New Zealand derby in last week’s 34-16 loss to the Highlanders.
Hyland said he was never ready to give up on rugby even after being sidelined for three years and was thrilled to finally have an opportunity.
“I didn’t want to just hang up my boots. I wanted to press on and make something of it,” he said.
“I do enjoy the drain-laying… but this is definitely the dream.”
Brothers and friends face off
Wallabies prop Scott Sio is set to square off against family friend and junior team-mate Mike Alaalatoa for the first time when the Brumbies take on New Zealand heavyweights the Crusaders in Canberra on Saturday.
The pair grew up together in Sydney before their Super Rugby journeys took them different ways, which led to Alaalatoa moving to Christchurch to launch his career with the Crusaders.
Sio joined the Brumbies and is now teaming up with Mike’s younger brother Allan as they attempt to register Australian rugby’s first trans-Tasman win in the past 35 matches against Kiwi opposition.
The Alaalatoa family have designed a “Team Alaalatoa” logo for Brumbies and Crusaders battles and Saturday’s showdown will be significant for Sio.
“It’s special for Allan for sure and for me too, I’m looking forward to playing against Mike if he’s in there,” Sio said.
“We grew up playing on the same teams. I’m the same age as Mike and Allan is the same age as my younger brother, Pat. I haven’t had the chance to play against Mike so far, so I’m looking forward to it.
Rodda’s Reds rallying cry
Young lock Izack Rodda is calling on the Queensland Reds forwards to match the South African conference leaders Lions in Brisbane on Saturday.
The four-Test Wallaby says he knows the formula to turn around the Reds’ run of four losses against the Johannesburg-based Lions, who overpowered the NSW Waratahs 29-0 in Sydney last week.
“I learned personally, as with every South African team, you’ve got to match them physically,” Rodda said.
“If you don’t they’ll just bully you out of the game.”
Fleck talks up Stormers
Stormers host Melbourne Rebels in Cape Town with coach Robbie Fleck believing his team can reach the knockout phase despite losing six of nine matches.
“Five of our remaining seven matches are at home so we can still qualify by finishing among the top eight in the combined standings,” insisted the former South Africa centre.
Stormers, who trail eighth-place Bulls by five points, host Rebels, Bulls, Chiefs, Lions and Sharks and are away to Sunwolves and Jaguares.
The Cape Town side reached the 2016 and 2017 quarter-finals, losing at home to Chiefs on both occasions.
Injury-prone Milner-Skudder’s back
The in-form Hurricanes welcome back All Black Nehe Milner-Skudder who will be hoping his injury nightmares are behind him after almost seven months out with a shoulder injury.
Milner-Skudder, 27, has been named on the bench for Friday’s match against Japan’s Sunwolves and is expected to get about 30 minutes of game time as the Hurricanes chase their seventh straight win.
The wing has endured a nightmare injury run since his breakthrough season in 2015 when he helped the All Blacks to win the Rugby World Cup, scoring six tries in the tournament.
A dislocated left shoulder sidelined him for the entire 2016 season. He returned to Super Rugby in March 2017 only to break his foot after two games.
His other shoulder gave way against South Africa in October meaning that Milner-Skudder has played just 11 Tests since his 2015 All Blacks debut — but he still has the impressive average of a try a match.
Umaga’s team are again rooted to the bottom of the New Zealand Super Rugby conference after losing six of their eight matches this season.
The most recent defeat was a 34-16 mauling from the Highlanders on Friday, taking their winless streak against New Zealand opposition to 15.
The optimism surrounding Umaga’s appointment in June 2015, when he talked of a return to the glory days that brought the Blues three titles, has dissipated as the losses mount.
Redman said he retained faith in Umaga, who is in the final year of his contract.
“There’s plenty of support for Tana within New Zealand rugby and the Blues,” he told reporters.
“We think he has a great rugby brain, he has the respect of the players, he has my support and the support of the board.”
Redman acknowledged fans’ disappointment but said dropping Umaga and his assistants was not necessarily the answer, although he said no new contracts had been signed.
“In the end, we haven’t been able to deliver and changing coaches every cycle hasn’t worked for the Blues previously,” he said.
“I think our preferred option would be to try to work with the group we have.”
Wellington-born Umaga played 74 Tests, including 21 as captain, leading the All Blacks in 2005 to a Grand Slam victory and a clean sweep of the British and Irish Lions.
After his international retirement in 2005, Umaga joined French club Toulon, where he earned his management stripes as a player-coach.
He returned to New Zealand in 2010, joining the Counties Manukau Steelers, a team he coached to their first Ranfurly Shield success in 2013.
He took over the Blues after John Kirwan and Pat Lam had both failed to turn around the team’s fortunes.
The Blues last won the Super Rugby title in 2003 and they have only made the playoffs twice since, most recently in 2011.