This weekend sees the return of the LV= Cup, aka the Anglo-Welsh Cup. This tournament has been slated by many as an unworthy addition to an already packed fixture list, but I think it can give clubs the opportunity to try out new combinations and blood younger players in a relatively unpressurized competition. With teams recovering from last weekend's European action and with players unavailable due to international duty, how will the teams face up this week?
Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's matches:
Leeds Carnegie v Saracens
Last weekend saw Leeds Carnegie crash out of the Amlin Challenge Cup after a dire 18-9 home defeat against pool leaders Bourgoin in what was a winner takes all clash. Leeds now have their eyes firmly on their main goal of Guinness Premiership survival, so it's no great surprise that the team facing Saracens this weekend is a mixture of youth (in the form of 19 year old fly-half Joe Ford and the newly named England under 20 captain, Jacob Rowan), and experience (including a first Leeds outing for former England hooker Andy Titterall). Saracens beat Super Jonny's Toulon before cruising past Rovigo in a 56-8 away victory last Saturday, and despite a couple of slip ups in the Guinness Premiership their form remains strong. The question is whether Sarries will take an almost full strength team to try and secure progression, or if like Leeds they're really not too bothered. I think they'll go for the jugular in their quest for silverware.
My prediction: Saracens to win by 17.
Leicester v Bath
Leicester Tigers crashed out of the Heineken Cup last weekend, but the Guinness Premiership supremos are looking to bounce back against a Bath side who are struggling through their most lacklustre season in years. The Tigers team for this fixture isn't a bad B team, which shows the quality and strength and depth throughout the squad. With the likes of Tuilagi, Mauger, Matt Smith and Sam Vesty in the backline, along with a few fresh faces on the bench and I think Bath will have their work cut out at Welford Road, especially as they are fielding a batch of unusual suspects in their starting XV. The Tigers are unbeaten in their last 26 games at Welford Road, and Bath last won there on 29 November 2003 whilst their last victory away from home came against Guinness Premiership strugglers Leeds on 2 January. When they're playing at home, it's a brave person who doesn't back the Tigers.
My prediction: Leicester to win by 12.
Newport-Gwent Dragons v Ospreys
The Ospreys have Adam Jones, Shane Williams, Kristian Phillips and Tom Prydie available for this fixture, whilst the Dragons have Dan Lydiate available after all these players were released by Wales for this weekend. Last weekend the Ospreys beat Leicester 17-12 at home to secure their progression in the Heineken Cup, and whilst the Welsh outfit has lost their last four matches in the LV= Cup they have won six out of the last seven games over their fellow Welsh regions. The Ospreys' victory over Leicester was marred by the controversy involving sixteen Ospreys trotting round the pitch at the same time, but that's for the lawyers to battle out now. The Dragons have lost their last six games across all competitions since their Magners league victory over Leinster on 6 December, therefore based on current form it looks likely to be an away win.
My prediction: Ospreys to win by 8.
Sale v Northampton
Northampton are the only English side through to the knock out stages of the Heineken Cup, and with their excellent position in the Guinness Premiership they can be forgiven in fielding a weakened team for this match despite being op of their pool. However they still have Fernandez Lobbe captaining from the front as Dylan Hartley is away on England duty, Chris Ashton (the GP top try scorer) is in the starting line up after being released by England, and Euan Murray also plays. Not bad. Sale's failure to progress in the Heineken Cup led their Director of Rugby, Kingsley Jones to announce that he selected his strongest available side for this game. Despite Charlie Hodgson marshalling the troops from ten, Sale's centre pairing of Bishop and Kennedy lacks experience but the pack looks quite strong. Sale have only won one of their last four games, but with Northampton riding on the crest of a wave, (despite their loss at Munster ending their run of ten consecutive victories last weekend), I think the Saints will march to a win.
My prediction: Northampton by 5.
Gloucester v Worcester
Gloucester's Paul Doran-Jones and Luke Narraway have been called up to the England Saxons meaning they are likely to be absent for this game, which is good news for Worcester Warriors coach Mike Ruddock who is targeting progression in this competition. Ruddock said: "We would like to do well in this competition. We will pick a strong panel, although what is now becoming evident is that the success we have had in bringing some players through to international level means we will be without a number of them for Saturday." He is of course talking about Matt Mullen who has been called up by Martin Johnson, and Alex Grove who is in Scotland. England sevens star Chris Cracknell will make his first start in a Worcester shirt after playing a few games on loan at Birmingham and Solihull to get some match time. Gloucester won their last Heineken Cup game away at the Dragons last weekend 32-23, whilst Worcester lost 8-3 in a tight affair at Montpellier.
My prediction: Gloucester to win by 8.
Wasps v Scarlets
Hooker Matthew Rees has been released by Wales and is likely to start in a Scarlets side who won their last two Heineken Cup fixtures (20-17 away to Brive and a scorching comeback to win 31-22 against London Irish). Both the Scarlets and Wasps sit at the top of their respective groups and no doubt both will be aiming for the win to secure progression in the competition. Wasps lost 19-17 last weekend to the dreadfully dull current incarnation of Racing Metro, who seemed intent on hoofing the ball whenever possible. Still, the Parisian team won so I guess they're not going to complain. Prior to that defeat, Wasps routed Roma to the tune of 50-16 which came on the back of two losses in the Guinness Premiership. This looks like it will be a close fixture especially as international call ups affect both teams.
My prediction: Wasps to win by 6.
Cardiff Blues v Newcastle
Heineken Cup parachutees, the Blues, take on Newcastle in a dress rehearsal for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter final at Newcastle's Kingston Park. Tom Shanklin and Sam Warburton have both been released by Wales for this fixture, with Wales coach Warren Gatland keen for Shanklin to get some game time before Wales' Six Nations opener against England on 6 February. Last weekend the Blues demolished Harlequins 45-20 at the Stoop whilst Newcastle beat Petrarca 20-3 at home. This weekend Newcastle coach Steve Bates is ringing the changes and likely to name a younger side, but with Carl Hayman up front the task facing the Blues forwards will be a daunting one.
My prediction: Cardiff to win by 10.
London Irish v Harlequins
London Irish suffered heartbreak last weekend when their 11-11 draw with Leinster saw them slip out of the Heineken Cup, with coach Toby Booth left to rue their earlier performances against the Scarlets. Harlequins failed to win any of their Heineken Cup group games but they have climbed to seventh in the Guinness Premiership whilst London Irish currently sit in fourth. With international call ups robbing both teams of some of their stars this game is likely to be short on razzamatazz.
My prediction: London Irish to win by 7.
So do you agree with my predictions for this week? Please let me know what you think.