ESPN's rugby predictions: Games of the week, players to watch & more

Following eight months of intense competition, four teams are left battling for silverware in the Aviva Premiership and PRO14, while Castres, Lyon, Toulon and Toulouse target a place in the Top 14 semifinals.

ESPN's experts predict which sides are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and where your attention should be trained across the playoff action.

Player to watch

Aviva Premiership (Martyn Thomas): Owen Farrell (Saracens). Amid the goodwill and congratulations directed towards Danny Cipriani following his deserved England recall, Farrell's elevation to captain of the touring party almost slipped through unnoticed. Given Dylan Hartley's continued struggles with concussion symptoms, it is a promotion that could prove permanent. Before he boards the plane to South Africa, however, he will want to guide Saracens to a fourth Premiership title. Standing in his way is Cipriani and Wasps -- it should be an intriguing tussle.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): James Ryan (Leinster). The Leinster and Ireland second row has won all 21 matches he has played in for club and country. Off the back of a brilliant first season and his man-of-the-match performance in the Champions Cup final, Ryan's rise has drawn comparison with that of British & Irish Lions lock Maro Itoje. Leinster will hope his unbeaten start continues for the rest of the season as he looks to add a PRO14 title to a Six Nations Grand Slam and Champions Cup winner's medal.

Challenge Cup (James Harrington): Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse). The South African winger has taken no time at all to become a cult hero at Toulouse -- nor to prove that size really isn't everything, even in the beefed-up Top 14, where he has scored 10 tries in 22 outings. When fit, the nimble flyer is surely one of the very first names inked in on Ugo Mola's teamsheet. The only question should be who provides the balance on the other wing on Saturday -- Maxime Medard or Yoann Huget?

Game of the weekend

Prem: Saracens vs. Wasps, Saturday, 12.30 p.m.

It's second versus third at Allianz Park, and if the regular season form book is anything to go by then the hosts will fancy their chances. Saracens have beaten Wasps home and away in the Premiership this season, by an aggregate score of 76-34, and ended the campaign with four successive wins. If their fans needed any further reason to be hopeful, though, it has arrived in the formidable shape of Billy Vunipola who is set to make his first start since January. Wasps should not be written off, however, and Dai Young will expect a backline containing Cipriani, Willie le Roux and Christian Wade to cause problems.

PRO14: Leinster vs. Munster, Saturday, 3.15 p.m.

The biggest rivalry in Irish rugby takes centre stage this weekend and having fallen at the semifinal stage in Europe, Johann van Graan's men will be eager to try and restore some pride. It is a huge opportunity for JJ Hanrahan against the European champions. If he can lead Munster into the final it could go a long way to showing Joe Schmidt his ability and improve his chances of being taken on Ireland's summer tour of Australia. He was crucial in Munster's win over Edinburgh a fortnight ago. Another good showing in victory would surely put him in the mind of Schmidt.

Top 14: Toulouse vs. Castres, Saturday, 3.15 p.m.

Interesting times both these sides. Toulouse appear to have put the horror show that was last season, when they hobbled home in 12th place to miss the playoffs for the first time in their history, so far behind them it's over the horizon. But, despite Toulouse's near-vertical upturn in fortunes, Castres have the wood on them right now, winning the two sides' last three meetings -- including, in December, a first win at Ernest Wallon in 39 years. If the recent games between the two sides are anything to go by, this will be a high-scoring and close encounter of the tense kind.

Neutrals' favourite

Prem: Newcastle. For the first time in two decades fans in north-east England can dream of a Premiership title, and the Falcons' rise up the table has been the good news story of the season. Saturday's trip to Exeter will mark Newcastle's first ever appearance in the end-of-season playoffs, an achievement that was acknowledged by Premiership Rugby as Dean Richards and Niki Goneva were handed director of rugby and player of the season gongs. Exeter, for so long the darlings of the English rugby public, have got some serious competition this year.

PRO14: Glasgow. The team with the tightest defence in the competition also happens to be one of the most exciting. Dave Rennie has made his mark in west Scotland. Incredibly, despite their attacking flair, Glasgow have only managed one league title, losing four times in the semifinals and once in the final [three of those at the hands of Leinster]. They will be underdogs against a Scarlets team that has beaten them on the past three occasions [26-8, 26-14 and 27-3]. The absence of Leigh Halfpenny may well swing the tide in their favour as they look to win back the title they won in 2015.

Top 14: Lyon. Who else could it be? Toulon won the Brennus in 2014, Castres in 2013, and Toulouse in 2012. Lyon were most recently champions of France back in 1933 -- and have never before reached the Top 14 playoffs. It helps, too, that under Pierre Mignoni -- think a shoutier version of Rob Baxter -- they've developed into a more-than decent side to watch on TV. Winning away at Toulon's Stade Mayol could, however, be a challenge too far. But in the likely event they do lose, it won't be for want of trying -- and exciting.

Big weekend for...

Prem: Danny Cipriani and James Haskell. The two England men are potentially 80 minutes away from seeing the curtain come down on their respective Wasps careers for a second time. Both have secured Premiership contracts elsewhere for next season in order to keep their Rugby World Cup dream alive, and they will want to bow out as champions. Young Wasps back row Jack Willis told ESPN this week that the squad were determined to ensure the pair, and Guy Thompson, left the Ricoh Arena with "memories and achievements that we'll all share forever". Defeat at Saracens is not an option.

PRO14: Johann van Graan. The Munster head coach may be in his first season in charge but the pressure could start to crank up should his side fall to a second semifinal defeat this season. Munster have been trophyless since 2011-12 with Rob Penney, Anthony Foley and Rassie Erasmus unable to bring silverware back to Thomond Park. In the past a lack of success on the pitch has hit attendances. Van Graan won't want to add his name to the list but the tag of nearly-men won't save him should the powers-that-be in Munster and the IRFU decide that they aren't progressing. It could also lead to an increase in players leaving for pastures new.

Top 14: Racing 92. There are two Top 14 playoff matches this weekend, and neither of them involve the losing Champions Cup finalists, but having this week off to regroup and regather themselves before next weekend's Top 14 semifinal in Lyon could prove to be vital to Racing's hopes of ending the season with some silverware. There is precedent here: In 2013, Clermont played Castres in a Top 14 semifinal seven days after missing out on the Champions Cup by a single point. They lost 25-9.