|Laughing it up at the top of the table: Dylan Hartley|
Well, with the new laws surrounding the tackle area, hopefully not, although my favourite gap-toothed pundit, Stuart Barnes, did raise an excellent point on Rugby Club last night. The benefit of the doubt at the breakdown is now with the attacking team which is a good thing as it promotes quicker ball and a more fluid game. However, the rules which require the defence to stop and get back to their feet before challenging for the ball allows players on the attacking side to clear them out by flying over the top of the ruck. Will last year's fears of being caught in possession be replaced by ELVs to even it up for the defence? For once in my life, I agree with Barnes: strong and clear refereeing is needed in this area, now more than ever.
That issue aside, last weekend we were treated to a masterclass of rugby by table-toppers Northampton. The Saints brushed aside Bath in impressive style to remain the only unbeaten Premiership team. Then there was the last gasp win for Wasps over rivals Leicester. A Dave Walder inspired fightback in the second-half saw Wasps triumph in an electric game which finished 37-30 in their favour. Exeter continued to make the step up to the Premiership look easy by recording their second win of the season, beating Newcastle 22-17. However, on a personal level, last weekend was a massive disappointment. Leeds slipped to a 13-0 half-time deficit at home to Saracens which put them out of contention for the rest of the match. 26-14 the final score. I was not happy.
But what of this weekend? As ever, here are my previews and predictions:
Saracens v Northampton
The clash of the weekend. Likely to be a bruising grudge match after Saracens won both of the crucial games against the Saints at the back end of last season to take themselves all the way to the Premiership final at Twickenham. Will Brendan Venter start Derrick Hougaard at fly-half as he did last weekend against Leeds? Saints wing Chris Ashton should be back after hobbling off against Bath, a game which saw him bag two tries. Ashton v Sarries new boy David Strettle will be the battle to watch. My prediction: Northampton by 7.
Bath Rugby v Sale.
Bath need to tighten up on the basic mistakes they made last week and I expect them to do this against Sale, the side who engineered a thrilling late comeback against Harlequins last weekend. Sale's away form is woeful. The Sharks have notched up eight losses in a row and just one win, against Leeds last November, in their last 17 trips on the road. My prediction: Bath by 12.
Gloucester Rugby v London Wasps.
Gloucester are yet to splutter into life this season whilst Wasps displayed their mental toughness in their fightback against Leicester on Saturday. Wasps have won their last five games against the cherry and whites in all competitions, but a trip to Kingsholm is never easy. My prediction: It will be a tough game, but Wasps to win by 7.
Harlequins v Exeter Chiefs.
Quins committed rugby hari-kari last weekend at Edgeley Park, throwing away a win over Sale due to second-half indiscipline. Conor O'Shea's men are the only side other than Leeds still searching for their first win and it will be tough against the Chiefs. The clash between Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson, top Premiership points scorer, and opposite number Nick Evans will test the calibre of the Chiefs' young stand-off and will be a fascinating contest to watch. My prediction: Harlequins by 6.
Leicester Tigers v Leeds Carnegie
Is now the best chance Leeds will get to take the scalp of the Champions? The Tigers look to be lacking a bit of cohesion this term but they are still dangerous in attack and Leeds will do well to contain them. Carnegie are making yet another slow start to the season and are rock bottom of the table with only one consolitary bonus point from the 22-21 loss at Gloucester. My prediction: Leicester by 18.
Newcastle Falcons v London Irish
Kingston Park is a tough place to go as the nights start drawing in, but the Exiles will make the trip in buoyant mood after beating Gloucester with relative ease last week. Again, I see this game being a battle of the fly-halves: Jimmy Gopperth, named at 10 in last year's Opta team of the year, versus nearly-man Ryan Lamb. My prediction: London Irish by 9.