Gloucester v Harlequins, Kingsholm, Fri 19.45
This is a huge game. Both teams need a win – Gloucester to confirm their credentials as continued play-off challengers, and banish their tag of nearly-men, and Quins to arrest a two-game losing streak that has seen them slip out of the top two and therefore potentially give up a home quarter final spot. Last weekend neither team really impressed, as the Cherry and Whites snuck past relegation favourites London Welsh at home and Harlequins were soundly beaten by new leaders Saracens.
The Londoners have not won in Gloucester for a staggering fourteen years, and despite winning the reverse fixture earlier in the season they will be keen to banish the weight of history. For Gloucester Freddie Burns needs to shake off his rustiness and re-find his form from the boot and with ball-in-hand – although to be fair to him and the rest of the Gloucestermen last weekend’s average performance had a lot to do with the dire conditions.
It is a very difficult one to call. Gloucester, when they turn it on, are very difficult to beat at home, but Quins, as reigning champions, won’t lose three in a row – will they?
Prediction: Harlequins by 4
Bath Rugby v London Welsh, The Rec, Sat 14.15
Bath’s loss in Salford last weekend has seen them slip out of the play-off race and into the tussle for Heineken Cup rugby next season. They are now 11 points adrift of fourth-placed Northampton, and will need some serious slip-ups from other teams if they are to make up that ground. At home to the bottom side, they will expect to have plenty of ball and unleash the likes of Eastmond, Biggs and Abendanon in the backs.
London Welsh’s week has seen further misery piled on as their appeal against the points deduction was rejected. They will be profusely sweating on the fitness of Gavin Henson, who adds a spark that is otherwise lacking when his replacement, old-time journeyman Gordon Ross, wears the number 10 shirt. They have proved that they are good enough for this league, but having not won a game since 1st December is it a step too far this season?
Bath have lost just once at home since September, and it is tough to see that changing with the visit of lowly London Welsh.
Prediction: Bath by 14
London Wasps v Saracens, Adam’s Park, Sat 15.00
This is another vitally important game in the hunt for the play-offs as well as the home ties. Wasps have slipped to three straight defeats and, after some strong mid-season form, have fallen seven points off the pace. Last week against Saints they played some outstanding rugby in atrocious conditions, but were ultimately muscled off the win by a vastly superior pack. Is that something they can fix in a week? Probably not, and into town this week rolls a pack equally as formidable.
Sarries are starting to look seriously impressive. They didn’t just beat Quins last weekend; they bullied them, humiliated them. Even Chris Ashton looked nippy – before his daft yellow card, of course. Mako Vunipola was a force of nature and up against a valiant but ultimately understrength-looking Wasps pack, he and his teammates will be licking their lips. In the centre Joel Tomkins could line up opposite Elliot Daly – a mouth-watering match-up that could decide a starting spot on England’s Argentina tour this summer.
Wasps have a good home record this season, but Sarries will just be too strong for them.
Prediction: Saracens by 7
Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers, Franklin’s Gardens, Sat 15.00
The East Midlands derby is rarely a boring game. It is never quiet, either, with fights and controversy (Tuilagi’s punch on Ashton, Clark’s brutal breaking of Hawkins’ arm) aplenty in recent years. Both teams recorded encouraging away wins last weekend, the Saints at Wasps and the Tigers at Exeter. Neither played particularly exhilarating rugby, and it is likely that this weekend will also be decided by what will be a titanic forward battle.
The Saints have been a little shaky at home this season (a poor 11-27 loss to Gloucester springs to mind), while the Tigers have the best away record in the league, having secured almost half of their points on the road. The most intriguing match-up probably comes at hooker, where Dylan Hartley squares off against the man who usurped him in the England pecking order – Tom Youngs. It will be worth watching the game just to see these two snarling, feisty hookers facing off.
Whichever giant pack comes out on top will win the game. Last weekend the Saints’ looked more impressive, and they could sneak a close victory at home.
Prediction: Saints by 2
Worcester Warriors v Exeter Chiefs, Sixways, Sat 15.00
Eighth plays ninth at Sixways on Saturday, and the Chiefs have a great record against Worcester, having not lost to them since 2004. Last weekend they came desperately close to drawing against the Tigers, Gareth Steenson’s last kick of the game falling agonisingly short.
Worcester’s loss to London Irish wasn’t entirely surprising, as the Exiles are having somewhat of a resurgence at home, but the manner of their performance was disappointing. With Goode against Steenson at fly-half – two of the league’s most solid goal-kickers – expect any infringements to go punished.
Exeter’s win away at Quins will still have confidence coursing through their veins, and will be enough to grab a win at Sixways.
Prediction: Exeter by 5
London Irish v Sale, Madejski Stadium, Sun 14.15
This is a huge game in the relegation run-in. A London Irish win would see them all but safe for another season, while a Sale win could potentially put them on similar points, and nine/ten ahead of London Welsh (assuming they don’t beat Bath). With Welsh still to visit the Madejski, it takes on extra importance.
Sale grabbed an important win at home to Bath last weekend, and they will bring the confidence of knowing that they can win these close games into this one. The Exiles, for their part, have not lost at the Madejski since 22nd December, and have thwarted the likes of title-hopefuls Saracens and playoff-chasing Wasps there. It is no longer an easy place to come and win.
At home, London Irish should get the victory and confirm their Premiership status for another year.
Prediction: Irish by 8
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43