Sale Sharks v Harlequins
This is a massive game. Sale are upsetting the traditional league powers with a superb run of form that has seen them climb into fifth and announce themselves as genuine play-off contenders. Danny Cipriani’s form has been integral to this rise, and he faces another big test this weekend against the brilliance of Nick Evans. Quins need to win this – they sit two points behind the Sharks and risk falling away from the play-off race completely. They’ve retained the same squad as the one that impressed in France last week to beat Stade Français. They wobbled over the Six Nations period, but with their England stars back I’d expect Harlequins to be too good for Sale. Quins by 5.
Leicester Tigers v London Wasps
Both of these sides rest players after energy-sapping European encounters last weekened. Props Ayerza and Mulipola are rested with Boris Stankovich and young Fraser Balmain getting rare starts for the Tigers, while Anthony Allen is also rested, so Manu Tuilagi starts at 12 with Matt Smith coming in outside him. Wasps have a handful of injuries including key men Joe Simpson and Andrea Masi, and also rest Joe Launchbury and Elliot Daly on the bench. Both sides have something to play for but given the Tigers’ upturn in form recently and their home advantage, it’s difficult to see past them winning this one. Tigers by 15.
Worcester Warriors v Exeter Chiefs
Worcester’s marked improvement over the past couple of months was finally rewarded with a win against Newcastle in the last round, and they now welcome an Exeter Chiefs side who have had a disappointing season by their lofty standards in recent years. The visitors are without standout performers Tom Johnson and captain Dean Mumm, which is a huge blow to them. With the carrot of a possible seat at next season’s rearranged top table in Europe, however, they still have plenty to play for. Of course, so do the Warriors – with games away at Bath and Saracens to come, they will fight tooth and nail for this one. Will it be enough? The break may have halted some of the momentum they had built up with several good performances, but the pursuit of survival can galvanise even a side that has had as poor a season as the Warriors, and I can see them sneaking a win over the Chiefs here. Worcester by 2.
Gloucester Rugby v Bath Rugby
The West Country derby is never a boring affair, and as with the games above there is plenty riding on this one which should make it even more intriguing. Bath will be feeling the heat from Sale and Quins below them, and with one of them guaranteed at least four points (barring a draw), they know they have to win this one. Gloucester are in that mid table cluster of teams fighting for seventh position and a place in the new European play-offs. The hosts name Billy Twelvetrees as captain and fly-half, and his battle with opposite man George Ford will be intriguing and go a long way to deciding the match. Ford needs a big performance after a stuttering game against Sale. Both sides are in patchy form and these derbies are rarely decided by many points – I’m predicting a positive response from George Ford and a narrow win for the visitors. Bath by 3.
Saracens v Northampton Saints
The clash of the top two in the league is never going to be a minor game, but weirdly it doesn’t feel as important as some of the other matches this weekend. Saracens are all but guaranteed a home quarter final – five points from their last four games will guarantee it. They have lost just once at Allianz Park this season and bring the momentum of a Heineken Cup quarter final win into this one. The Saints, however, will bring no fears into it either. They thumped the league leaders at home earlier this season, and shocked everyone by winning at Allianz Park in last year’s semi-final. They name a hugely strong line-up that includes, crucially, man mountain Samu Manoa at no.8 – his duel with opposite man Billy Vunipola is worth the admission fee alone. It’s a devilishly difficult one to call, but I don’t think Saracens will allow the Saints to walk out with a win again. Saracens by 3.
London Irish v Newcastle Falcons
Newcastle are just beginning to look over their shoulder. It would be a miracle if they were caught by Worcester now, but they are in a miserable run of form that has not seen them win since the end of October last year. Their home loss to the Warriors has heaped the pressure back on them and a win here would be priceless. They benefit from the fact that Irish have nothing left to play for – they can neither be relegated nor challenge for a European spot. Promising flanker Gerard Ellis is named on the openside flank for the hosts, while Shane Geraghty pulls the strings from 10. Not having anything to play for will either free Irish up to score loads of points, or see them put in a disinterested performance. I’m going for the former, which should be enough to see off Newcastle. Irish by 7.
Do you agree? How do you see the weekend going?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images