Sale Sharks v Bath Rugby, Fri 22nd March 20.00
Sale and Bath go into this game with differing ambitions. Sale, beneficiaries of London Welsh’s points deduction and finally off the bottom of the table, want to put more distance between themselves and the ailing Exiles. Bath are pushing for Heineken Cup rugby and have an outside chance of the play-offs. The Sharks select Nick Macleod at fly-half, with Cipriani dropping to the bench.
Bath welcome back international props David Wilson and Paul James, while in the backs the likes of Kyle Eastmond, Tom Biggs and Nick Abendanon will hope to be let loose by the in-form Tom Heathcote. It is a back-line with the potential to dazzle. Bath are in form, having won seven of their last nine, and should have enough to beat Sale up in Salford.
Prediction: Bath by 9
London Irish v Worcester Warriors, Sat 23rd March 15.00
London Irish’s form may be a bit hit-and-miss, but their last two home matches have yielded wins against title-chasers Saracens and Wasps. Worcester, for their part, haven’t won on the road since New Year’s Day. A win for the visitors would plunge the Exiles back into the relegation dogfight, while a home win would see them open up some space away from the bottom two. Irish’s fliers Topsy Ojo and Marland Yarde will be keen to get some ball in the open spaces and can cause havoc if they do so. With two distributors – Ian Humphreys and Shane Geraghty – at ten and twelve it is eminently possible.
Worcester’s last game was an impressive win over Wasps, and they will be keen to build on that. They are floating a bit on their own in the table – not in the relegation battle but not challenging for Heineken Cup places – so there is little more than pride to play for for them. London Irish have been a different beast at home recently, and as such I think they will record a fairly comfortable win here.
Prediction: Irish by 8
Gloucester Rugby v London Welsh, Sat 23rd March 15.00
Gloucester’s title ambitions, not to mention pride, were dealt a blow in the last round when they were beaten by Bath in a thrilling encounter at the Rec. They welcome back Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Jim Hamilton into the starting line-up from international duty. The Burns-Twelvetrees axis was in sublime form earlier this season, and if they can get firing again and release the likes of Sharples and May there could be some exciting rugby on show.
London Welsh’s points deduction sees them two points adrift at the bottom and in desperate need of some good news. Whether that comes from their appeal or not, a surprise victory in the West Country would be a huge boost to them. Gavin Henson continues at fly-half, and is undoubtedly the key man for them. Sadly, against a Gloucester team with their international contingent back, I can’t see it happening.
Prediction: Gloucester by 18
London Wasps v Northampton Saints, Sat 23rd March 15.15
Wasps have named several returning internationals on the bench, keeping the faith with those that have been doing the business in their absence. They have, however, slipped up slightly recently, losing their last two. They welcome back flyer Christian Wade to partner fellow speedster Tom Varndell, while the likes of Launchbury, Haskell and Masi will all provide strong impacts from the bench.
After their woeful defeat in round 14 at home to Gloucester, the Saints are slowly building some form again having won their last three. They have picked a monster back-row of Samu Manoa, Phil Dowson and GJ Van Velze – their clash with the likes of Vunipola and Johnson will be titanic. Ben Foden has plenty to prove from full-back, and will be hoping to show the England selectors what they missed over the Six Nations. It should be a cracking game, and I can see Wasps getting back to winning ways at home.
Prediction: Wasps by 5
Exeter Chiefs v Leicester Tigers, Sat 23rd March 17.00
Another intriguing match-up sees title-chasing Tigers travel down to Sandy Park to face the Chiefs. The Tigers have named an immensely strong line-up, with internationals Tuilagi, Flood, B Youngs, Ayerza, T Youngs, Cole, Parling and Croft all starting. They can call on the likes of Castrogiovanni, Waldrom, Kitchener and Ford from the bench, so there’s no doubt how seriously they’re taking this one.
And rightly so. The Chiefs’ last outing was that astonishing victory at the home of the champions. They had been slipping down the table before that, and the win will have given them the confidence to start another surge back up the table. Naqelevuki versus Tuilagi is going to create shockwaves that will be felt all over the country – surely the most powerful gain-line match-up for a while. Exeter are on a high after that win, but the Tigers have such quality throughout their 23 that they could sneak the win. It will be tight though.
Prediction: Tigers by 3
Saracens v Harlequins, Sun 24th March 14.00
The final game of the weekend is also the biggest, as the top two square off at Allianz Park. Saracens have all their big names back, with Mako Vunipola and Kelly Brown in the pack joining Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode in the backs. Young Will Fraser on the flank is one to look out for – he has been busy making a name for himself while the more established players have been away, and continues at open-side this weekend.
Harlequins’ home loss to Exeter will have stung all the more as it saw them drop below Saracens to second place, just one ahead of the Tigers. Lose this and they could be out of the top two for the first time in a while. They too are bolstered by international returnees, with Marler, Robshaw, Care and Brown all starting. Nick Evans will need to re-find his kicking boots, with the in form Ben Botica waiting in the wings on the bench. They are quality sides both, and arguably the hard, artificial surface will suit Quins’ game more, but the Saracens line-up oozes class and I can’t see them losing at home.
Prediction: Saracens by 6
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43