Bath v Leicester Tigers
The Tigers have only won once at Bath since 2006, but know that three points from their final two games will see them secure a home semi-final. That will work as motivation aplenty no doubt, and if not the historic rivalry between these two clubs will add an extra level of intrigue. Bath know that with Sarries to come away this is as must-win as they come for a club still hanging onto that dream of Heineken Cup rugby next season. The Tigers welcome back England internationals Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom, while Steve Mafi moves to the second row as the excellent Ed Slater shifts to the bench. Matt Smith also starts, and Dan Bowden interestingly comes onto the bench to replace Bath-bound George Ford. The West country outfit name five forwards on their bench, including South African Nick Köster, which indicates that they know where this game will be won. In the backs, Ben Williams is entrusted with the unenviable task of stopping Manu Tuilagi.
There is plenty to play for for both sides, and although Bath have won their last four in the league at home the Tigers are once again peaking at the right time and could prove marginally too strong.
Prediction: Tigers by 5
Gloucester v Saracens
Gloucester’s play-off hopes hang by a thread after their loss to Sale last weekend, and they would not have wanted to have to rely on beating Sarries to keep the dream alive. They have not lost in the league at home since January, but as Biarritz showed a few weeks ago in the Amlin, if you come to Kingsholm and beat them up up front you can win comfortably. Sarries are showing a Tigers-esque ability to hit form as the end of the season approaches, and have won their last six, including four with bonus points. They bring a mammoth pack to take on the Cherry and Whites, with Gill, Smit and Stevens representing as stern a test of a team’s scrummaging as is possible. The excellent Will Fraser has a chance to show what he can do against Qera, one of the league’s best marauding sevens. And Qera is joined in the back row by the returning Ben Morgan, who will be desperate to impress with the Lions squad announcement around the corner. The back-line looks devilishly quick again with Henry Trinder reinstated at 13, suggesting they might try and run around Sarries, rather than through them.
Sarries have been immense and as imposing as Kingsholm can be, they are good enough to silence the Gloucester faithful.
Prediction: Saracens by 7
London Irish v London Welsh
The battle of the Exiles in this penultimate round was looking at one point like it could be a relegation shoot-out. Now, however, despite both propping up the table there is an insurmountable 12-point chasm between them and there is little to play for. Alex Corbisiero returns for Irish and will be hungry for game time – if the Lions are out of his reach he will be keen to cement a place on England’s summer tour at least. You suspect that not even a win here could lift the gloom surrounding London Welsh right now – relegation and an uncertain monetary future is not a pretty combination for any club. It is bitterly unfair after all they have given to the league, but such is the way it works at the moment.
It could be quite an open game with nothing for either side left to play for, and Irish’s impressive home form (they have not lost in the league since before Christmas) should continue.
Prediction: London Irish by 15
Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks
Sale got their first bonus point victory of the year last weekend, and will be keen to show everyone that they are in fact a team that can mix it with the best. The Saints’ last four have seen three bonus point wins, with the glaring exception of the mullering they were handed at home by the Tigers. Their style has got tighter as the season has gone on, and against Sale they will fancy their chances of dominating up front and will likely look to the forwards to win them the game. That said, giant Samu Manoa drops to the bench – but they can still name a pack with the likes of Tonga’uiha, Hartley, Lawes and Van Velze in it. In the backs Burrell and May formed a lethal combination last weekend and continue their partnership in midfield. Sale, with little riding on this one, shift Cueto into the centres and give Danny Cipriani his first start for a while.
The Saints will batter the Sale forwards into submission, and record a comfortable victory that will see them tighten their stranglehold on a play-off spot.
Prediction: Saints by 26
Worcester Warriors v Harlequins
Another game that sees a play-off chasing side facing one with nothing left to play for. Harlequins got back to winning ways last weekend against Bath, and with Saints, currently one point behind them in fourth, to come at home, they will target this one to ensure they are guaranteed a play-off spot before that game. Worcester sacked head coach Richard Hill in the week only to immediately appoint Dean Ryan to the role – a shrewd appointment for a club who have wallowed in the nether regions of the table for several seasons now. How much of that was down to Hill, however, is debatable. The champions name a strong line-up with Monye returning on the wing and Lowe and Turner-Hall combining in the centres. Ben Botica, last week’s man of the match, is somewhat surprisingly named on the bench once again.
Harlequins will record a comfortable victory and all but confirm their play-off spot.
Prediction: Harlequins by 18
London Wasps v Exeter Chiefs
This will be one of the games of the weekend, and is certainly the one with the most riding on it. Wasps know that a loss sees their hopes of making the Heineken Cup next season die, which would be a bitter disappointment to all at the club given their form earlier this year. Exeter come into the game on the back of a fine run of form that has seen their only loss in the last five a narrow three-pointer against the Tigers. They know a win here puts them firmly in the driving seat for that Heineken Cup spot. Wasps welcome back their big names with Masi, Stephen Jones, Simpson, Launchbury and Haskell all returning to the starting XV. Exeter’s Matt Jess broke his try-scoring drought last weekend, and along with the exciting talent that is Jack Nowell they have enough to counter the threat of Wasps flyers Wade and Varndell.
Wasps may have their big names back, and be at home, but their slide has been worrying and Exeter, in excellent form, could just pip them at Adam’s Park. It will be a hell of a game.
Prediction: Exeter by 3
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43