The Six Nations kicks off this weekend, and there is plenty more rugby in the LV= Cup. Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend.
The Six Nations
Ireland v Italy
2009 Grand Slam champions Ireland play wooden spoon winners Italy in the opening clash of the tournament. Italy have leaked an average of 29 points per game since this time last year, and with Ireland's sizzling backline of stars I can't see this changing on Saturday. Italy has a strong scrum containing Castrogiavanni, Del Fava, Bortelami and Bergamasco, although the loss of World class eight man Sergio Parisse is huge. Despite this Italy will look to target the perceived weakness in Ireland's front row, and Cian Healy will have to scrummage for his life. Ronan O'Gara is back in the 10 jersey for Ireland due to an injury to Jonny Sexton, and Brian O'Driscoll's centre partner from Leinster, Gordon D'Arcy, is also named in the starting XV. With Italy's backline lacking in spark, Ireland will walk this game.
My prediction: Ireland by 23.
England v Wales
A new look England play Wales in a match that celebrates a centenary of matches between the countries at Twickenham. Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait return and form yet another centre combination, whilst Delon Armitage starts at full back. Nick Easter is back at 8, and Foden and uncapped prop Dan Cole appear on the bench. Compared with November's team, on paper this version of England has a lot more flair. Wales have an experienced pack which includes Lions props of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins. Shane Williams, another Lions man, is out on the wing, whilst Jamie Roberts will look to punch holes in England's defence. Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel are side lined due to injury which is a big loss to Wales coach Warren Gatland. Both sides are under pressure after lacklustre performances in November,
My prediction: England to win by 6.
Scotland v France
Defence is the keyword for Scotland who will look to dampen the French attack as they did in their 9-8 victory over Australia in November. The boot of Chris Paterson and the dogged determination of the forwards are crucial if Scotland are to stand a chance of turning over France. Imanol Harinordoquy is a big danger man for the visitors, both at the line-out and in the loose. Sebastian Chabal, Fabien Barcella and Damien Traille are all injured and will miss the game, and scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde replaces the banned Julien Dupuy. Scotland will be hoping that the brothers Lamont will step up and score tries and get their tournament off to a flier.
My prediction: France to win by 12.
Ospreys v Leeds Carnegie
The Ospreys were crushed 40-19 by the Dragons last week on the back of their Heineken Cup win over Leicester. Leeds were also defeated last weekend at Headingley by Saracens, with Leeds' woeful home form continuing after their torrid 18-9 Amlin Cup defeat by Bourgoin. Unlike the Ospreys, Leeds aren't affected by international call ups, but with their current form I can't see Leeds taking anything from this game.
My prediction: Ospreys by 12.
Bath v Sale
Bath lost 27-11 to Leicester in the last round, and Sale lost 20-14 at home to Northampton. Both of these teams look unlikely to progress in this competition, both sitting third in their respective pools. Bath have ground out a few results with home advantage, whilst Sale's performances away from home have been woeful this season.
My prediction: Bath to win by 7.
Northampton v Leicester
Pool 1 leaders Leicester travel to Franklins Gardens to play the only English team remaining in the Heineken Cup. Last week the Tigers dispatched Bath at Welford Road 27-11 with a strong second string side, whilst the Saints beat Sale 20-14 away from home. With Foden, Lawes and Hartley missing for Northampton and Moody, Flood, Deacon and Cole missing for the Tigers, the second strings will battle it out again.
My prediction: Leicester to win by 9.
Scarlets v Cardiff Blues
Both teams are top of their respective pools, and both teams come into this game on the back of a win in the last round. The Blues demolished Newcastle 45-24 and ran in six tries, whilst the Scarlets beat Wasps 18-13 away at Adams Park. Both sides will be stripped of their Welsh stars and step out a shadow of the sides that both bowed out of the Heineken Cup. Separated by one place in the Magners League it is a tough one to call, but I think the Scarlets will edge it.
My prediction: Scarlets to win by 5.
Worcester v London Irish
When these teams last met in the Guinness Premiership on 5 December at the Madejski Stadium, the result was a 16-16 draw. Both teams have won one game from three in this competition. Last week, Irish lost at 16-13 home to Harlequins whilst Worcester were defeated 17-5 by Gloucester at Kingsholm. The Exiles will miss the Armitage brothers whilst Worcester will be without Matt Mullen and Alex Grove.
My prediction: Another draw.
Harlequins v Gloucester
Harlequins have been the Kings of inconsistency this season. They failed to win a single pool game in the Heineken Cup but have shown flashes of brilliance in the Guinness Premiership. Sitting second behind Cardiff Blues in their LV= Cup pool, last week Harlequins beat London Irish away from home. Gloucester lie second in their pool after beating Worcester 17-5 last weekend. When they met in the Guinness Premiership on 28 November, Harlequins' Danny Care and Nick Evans ran riot and led Quins to an impressive 35-29 victory. Care is on England duty, but I think Quins will win again.
My prediction: Harlequins by 8.
Newcastle v Wasps
When these side last met in the Guinness Premiership at Adams Park Newcastle pulled off a shock 12-6 victory. This was thanks to the Falcons dominance at the scrum, as Carl Hayman and John Golding demolished the Wasps' pack. Last weekend Wasps suffered against the Scarlets, losing 18-13 at home. Newcastle also suffered a defeat away to the Cardiff Blues. With psychological advantage after their last meeting, I think Newcastle will win again.
My prediction: Newcastle to win by 6.
Saracens v Newport Gwent Dragons
Saracens won 28-5 against Leeds Carnegie in the last round, and are second in their pool on points difference. The Dragons beat the Ospreys 40-19 last weekend and also lie second in their pool. The Dragons' form in the Magners League has been inconsistent as they have won five of their ten matches. Saracens are second in the Guinness Premiership, one point behind leaders Leicester with a game in hand. Based on consistency of performances, I'm tipping Saracens to win.
My prediction: Saracens by 11.
So what do you think? Have I got my predictions right this week?