|A crucial weekend for Leeds captain Marco Wentzel|
The LV= Cup has been in town for the last fortnight but now the league is back with instalment number eight.
Hopefully Chris Ashton and chums will rip up the Twickenham turf in another sensational England performance, but all the while the league rumbles on quietly in the background.
Here are my previews and predictions for all you punters out there:
Leicester v Harlequins
Harlequins make their second trip to Welford Road in a fortnight after beating the Tigers 34-25 in the LV= Cup two weeks ago. Leicester then slumped to their fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions last weekend in the 46-13 thumping by the Ospreys at Rodney Parade.
That defeat marks the Tigers’ worst run of form since 2003/04. However, even though Quins have been enjoying a run of good form recently, they haven’t won on the road in the Premiership since their trip to Leeds last December. Conor O’Shea’s men have also never been victorious at Welford Road in the league.
After a two week break for the LV= Cup, Leicester have named a strong side, including a place on the bench for lock Geoff Parling who has missed the start of the season with a neck injury. Fly-half Nick Evans and full back Mike Brown return for Quins.
My prediction: I think the Tigers will be a much tougher challenge than two weeks ago. Leicester by 9.
Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints
Sale survived a second-half rally by Leeds Carnegie last Sunday in a 23-17 cup win at Headingley. This sealed two wins from two for the Sharks in the LV= Cup after an impressive 39-14 victory at home to London Irish a fortnight ago. In fact, Sale’s only defeat in their last six games in all competitions was the 26-39 loss to the Exiles in the league on 31 October. The Sharks’ form looks to be on the rise, having now won four of their last five home games. This confidence sees them give 19-year-old rugby league convert, Iain Thornley, his Premiership debut at outside centre after two appearances in the LV= Cup.
Northampton’s form has been solid so far this season with their only loss in any competition at the hands of Saracens in Aviva Premiership round four. The Saints tied 22-22 with Saracens in the LV= Cup before convincingly beating the Dragons 28-3 at Franklins Gardens last weekend.
The history books reveal that Sale have only beaten Northampton once in their last six meetings, a 24-18 league win at Edgeley Park back in April 2009. Can they add to that this weekend? I don’t think so.
My prediction: I’ll be impressed if Sale can pull this one out of the bag, but they will miss their England stars and that will be crucial. Northampton by 14.
Exeter Chiefs v Leeds Carnegie
Exeter have been the surprise package of the Aviva Premiership so far, winning three of their first seven league games and notching up a shock 34-19 away win over Bourgoin in the Amlin Challenge Cup. The Chiefs are now looking to seal a second successive league victory following their 23-9 win over Saracens in round seven – the perfect tonic after a scoreless second-half resulted in a frustrating 23-23 draw with Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup last weekend.
Exeter’s opponents, Leeds, have only won one game this season: the 23-9 win over Bucuresti Oaks in the Amlin Challenge Cup. However, Carnegie have won their last six matches against Exeter in National One since 2000/01. Sadly, this form counts for nothing now, and Saturday’s game at Sandy Park is a must-win fixture for Neil Back’s team who are currently superglued to the bottom of the table.
My prediction: Sorry Leeds. It’s a long way to Exeter and with the absence of star player Hendre Fourie and a crisis at hooker with Steve Thompson and Andy Titterall unavailable I think you will continue to struggle. Exeter by 8.
London Wasps v London Irish
The last four league meetings between these two London rivals have all been won by the home side on the day. The Exiles top the Aviva Premiership table after the first seven rounds but Toby Booth’s men have lost their last two outings – 25-16 at home to the Scarlets and 39-14 to Sale, both in the LV= Cup. However, Irish have suffered only one reversal in the Premiership so far this season which was the 13-20 defeat at Bath in round two.
Mark van Gisbergen’s six penalties handed Wasps an 18-16 victory last weekend in a lacklustre LV= Cup game against Bath. However, the Exiles will arrive refocused on the league and set on recording their second league win from 10 visits to Adams Park, and their first since April 2006.
My prediction: It’s a tough one, but I think it will be Irish by 7.
Newcastle Falcons v Gloucester Rugby
Newcastle are perilously close to the bottom of the Premiership table having only notched up one win at home to Wasps in round two. However, the Falcons have won two of their last three home games in all competitions, James Fielden the key man in the hard-fought 18-17 LV= Cup win over the Ospreys a fortnight ago.
The last five league meetings between the two clubs have all been won by the home side on the day, but Gloucester have not won at Kingston Park in the Premiership for almost three years.
However, the cherry and white’s form is improving, with their only defeat in their last five games against the Dragons on 4 November. Gloucester have sneaked up into third in the league, almost without being noticed. Despite this, their away form is a worry as they have only won one away game this season. Improving that statistic on a long trip to the north east will always be tricky.
My prediction: As the winter winds start to swirl at Kingston Park, I think Newcastle will win by 3.
Bath Rugby v Saracens
Bath’s form has been a bit, well, poor. Their only win in their last five league games was the 31-16 win at home to Sale in round four, seeing them slip into sixth place. Still, it’s not as bad as this time last season when Bath were competing with Leeds for the unwelcome title of strongest team in the league.
Exeter spoiled Saracens’ five match winning league run in the last round, but Brendan Venter will be buoyed by the knowledge that his team has won their last six away games played at their opponents’ usual home grounds. Both teams lost in the LV= Cup last week.
My prediction: Bath are in desperate need to find their form in the absence of their international stars but I think it will be Saracens by 6.