Aviva Premiership Round 9: Previews and Predictions
It's that time of the week again where I cast my beady little eye over the weekend's Aviva Premiership fixtures. There's a couple of tasty looking games, with first place Northampton playing host to second place London Irish. Saracens make the journey across the M4 to Gloucester with hopes of ending the cherry and whites' 17 game unbeaten home run, whilst lowly Leeds are looking to get their first league win of the season at The Stoop.
But who will win? Like a drunk bloke hoping for a bit of 3am nookie, here's my weekly stab in the dark:
Northampton Saints v London Irish
This looks set to be the clash of the weekend in the Aviva Premiership. First plays second. Northampton are flying high at the top of the league, a clutch of youngsters impressing in last week's 19-10 comeback over Sale at Edgeley Park. Nothing seems to be able to stop them at the moment but Toby Booth's Exiles are hot on their heels and might have something to say about that. The Saints have won on their last three meetings with Irish, whilst the Exiles' last victory at Franklin's Gardens was a narrow 21-20 win six years ago. And Northampton are now on an impressive run of eight consecutive wins in all competitions even though they are missing key players thanks to international call-ups. Strength-in-depth seems to be the order of the day for the Saints, which is all credit to the coaching team led by Jim Mallinder. Northampton's opponents, London Irish, slipped up against Wasps last Sunday. The 33-25 defeat was the first time the Exiles failed to take a league point from a Premiership game this season.
My prediction: The understrength Saints fought back in Stockport and ended Sale's winning run. Against London Irish at home? It's a tricky one to call. A little controversially, I'm going for Irish to win by 7.
Exeter Chiefs v Sale Sharks
This prediction is something of a shot in the dark (as if the rest of them aren't...) as Exeter and Sale have never met before in any competition. The Chiefs might be the Premiership's newest team but they
will not fear the Sharks this weekend. Instead, Exeter will start the game as favourites after rising to 7th in the league. They can also boast a four game unbeaten run in all competitions. Sandy Park is proving to be a tricky place to go - the Chiefs have only lost there once in the league this season, in a narrow 12-9 defeat by London Irish in round six. Last Friday, Sale deflated like a punctured spacehopper against Northampton, and the sorry statistic facing Sharks head coach Mike Brewer is that their only win in their last five Premiership matches was the turgid 6-3 victory at Leeds Carnegie a month ago. However, despite last week's home defeat, the Sharks' recent form as been good, winning three of their last four away games in all competitions.
My prediction: It's a long way from Manchester to Exeter and it is a trip into the unknown for Sale. Exeter by 9.
Leicester Tigers v Newcastle Falcons
Both these sides got back to winning ways last weekend. The Tigers ended their four game losing run in all competitons with their 18-13 home win over Harlequins last Friday. Over at Kingston Park, Falcons fly-half Jimmy Gopperth outkicked Gloucester counterpart Freddie Burns to score all the points in their 12-6 win, only their second in the league this season. Leicester have won three of their last four games against Newcastle and even though international call ups have weakened their side they will be confident. The last, and in fact only time, the Falcons have won at Welford Road was almost 13 years ago. Are Newcastle going to pull a massive shock out of the bag this week and beat the Tigers? Not if the wonderful 36, aka Billy Twelvetrees, has anything to do with it. The Tigers stand-in stand-off has been in fine form in Toby Flood's absence and has been key in keeping the Tigers ticking over.
My prediction: Leicester by 12.
Gloucester Rugby v Saracens
Gloucester came away from a wintry Kingston Park with a losing bonus point last weekend, ending their four game winning run in the league. But fear not, cherry and white fans, they are unbeaten for more than a year at Kingsholm since Cardiff Blues won there in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on 8 November 2009. That's a 17 game unbeaten run - something which pantomime villain, the wonderful Saracens head coach Brendan Venter, will be looking to dash this weekend. Watch out Gloucester, he's behind you. And Gloucester really should watch out. Last weekend, Venter threw a load of youngsters into the mix against Bath where they fought back to claim a 17-13 win at the Rec. The star of the show was 19-year-old Owen Farrell, son of, you've guessed it, Great Britain rugby league and Saracens star, Andy Farrell. And Sarries' form is good. Their only loss in their last seven league games was at home to Exeter at the end of October. Can Gloucester maintain their home run or will Venter conjure up yet another win?
My prediction: Another tricky one to call. Part of me thinks Venter will do it again, but Gloucester's home record isn't to be sniffed at. Gloucester by 8.
Bath Rugby v London Wasps
Bath seem to be veering off the rails at the moment and look to be trying their best to replicate the woeful run of form from start of last season which saw them slump to 11th in the league. Their only win in their last six games of Aviva Premiership Rugby was the 31-16 win at home to Sale in round four. However, home form is becoming a huge issue as the men in blue, black and white have only won one of their last four games at The Rec in all competitions. That was the 29-19 win over Cardiff Blues in the LV= Cup on 5 November.
After starting the season looking like shadows of their former selves, Wasps have started to string together some form and have now won three of their last four league games. Last weekend they outscored London Irish and a late Dave Walder penalty denied the Exiles a losing bonus point. Bath and Wasps have already met this season, the Londoners beating Steve Meehan's men 18-16 in the LV= Cup at Adams Park two weeks ago.
My prediction: Looking at recent form I'm going to have to plump for a Wasps win by 9.
Harlequins v Leeds Carnegie
As the weeks pass by it pains me more and more to write previews for any game involving my beloved Leeds. Why? Because it forces me to remember just how hopeless they've been this season. Winless in the league after the first eight rounds and seven points adrift at the bottom of the table, it's becoming increasingly hard to see where they will get their first win. And this weekend's task won't be an easy one. Harlequins have won their last four games against Leeds, whilst Carnegie haven't won at The Stoop since 2003.
But there is a glimmer of hope as Quins are winless in their last three league games. However, their home form is pretty good, as they have lost just one of their last 11 matches at The Stoop in all competitions. Leeds' problems are worse still as they only have one hooker available following injury to Andy Titterall and Steve Thompson's England call-up. This means head coach Neil Back has been left searching for cover and being forced to rely on former Leeds hooker, conditioning coach James Parkes, on the bench. I fully expect Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans to rip the visitors to shreds.
My prediction: Probably another big defeat for Leeds. Harlequins to win by 18.