Harlequins vs Leicester Tigers
Two sides that made fast starts have really suffered recently. Harlequins have lost their last three in a row, while the Tigers have failed to win in their last two. Quins are clearly suffering in the absence of their England contingent, while the news that Nick Evans will be out for 12 weeks with a broken leg could not have come at a worse time. Ben Botica takes over the reins at 10, and must put his blooper against Northampton behind him quickly. The Tigers recall Manu Tuilagi to the team, while the back three of Betham, Veianu and Tait start in their sixth different positional combo of the season. Ed Slater captains with Brendan O’Connor also back in the pack, while Jean de Villiers could make his debut from the bench.
Leicester are able to recall some of their big guns at a crucial time; the same cannot be said for Harlequins. It should be a very close game, and if Nick Evans had been playing I would have fancied the hosts – but in his absence, I can see it going the way of the visitors. Leicester by 3.
Saracens vs Gloucester Rugby
It will have been an odd week in training for Saracens. They have lost just once previously this season, but the manner of their utter demolition at the hands of Wasps will have been completely alien to them. Expect a response this weekend. They have made changes – most intriguingly in the centre, where Duncan Taylor is included after his heroics for Scotland in Cardiff. Ransom, Wigglesworth, Gill and Smith also start. Gloucester make five changes to the side that beat Harlequins, and name a front five with international quality throughout – Thrush, Galarza, Afoa and Hibbard are serious players.
It will be massively intriguing to see how Saracens respond to last weekend. One thing that that Wasps result will have done, however, is to give visiting sides the belief that they can win – and Gloucester will certainly do so. I can see the hosts bouncing back, however. Saracens by 12.
Worcester Warriors vs Sale Sharks
Worcester’s situation is becoming somewhat precarious, with their unfortunate loss to Bath last weekend taking their tally to eight in a row in the league. Conversely, Sale have won their last four games in a row. The hosts throw new big name signing François Hougaard straight into the starting line-up; he partners Tom Heathcote, with another playmaker in Ryan Mills outside them. Sale are captained by Josh Beaumont, who returns from the England camp to start at number eight, while Danny Cipriani continues at 10 despite the somewhat icy comments of Steve Diamond during the week.
I keep predicting Sale to lose, and they keep winning. I’m going to change that this weekend, despite Worcester having played much better than their eight game winless streak would suggest. Sale by 7.
Bath Rugby vs Wasps
And so we come to what must be the game of the weekend. Bath’s dogged win over Worcester last weekend has given them some breathing space above the relegation zone, but that very sentence in itself tells you how far they are from last season’s tilt at the title. Unexpectedly, they are able to welcome back Ollie Devoto in the centre, while Rhys Priestland returns from Wales duty to take the fly-half jersey. Wasps, perhaps surprisingly, make three changes to the side that pulled off the result of the season at Saracens, as they integrate Bradley Davies and Ruaridh Jackson from Wales and Scotland respectively, while Frank Halai joins an immensely dangerous back division.
It will not be the rout that it was at Allianz Park, but Wasps will enter this one as favourites. They enjoy playing away from home, able to soak up pressure and shock teams on the break with some of the insane pace in their ranks. They’ve already won once at Bath this season; I think they’ll do it again. Wasps by 5.
London Irish vs Exeter Chiefs
Exeter missed the chance to put real pressure on Saracens as they failed to beat Sale themselves in the last round. Indeed, the top four all lost on the same weekend, which hasn’t happened for a very long time. Exeter have in fact now lost two in a row, the first time they have fallen to successive losses this season. London Irish may represent the perfect tonic. The Exiles hand a start to the talented but raw Theo Brophy-Clews at fly-half, while former Gloucester lock Elliot Stooke packs down in the engine room. Exeter have Italian star Michele Campagnaro to unleash from the bench, while Sam Hill will be looking to impress Eddie Jones in the midfield.
London Irish have been woeful away from home but surprisingly competitive at the Madejski. They will put up a good fight but I expect Exeter to halt their losing run here. Exeter by 9.
Newcastle Falcons vs Northampton Saints
Newcastle’s recent form goes: win, loss, win, loss, win. So logic would dictate a loss here, and indeed in the Saints they find themselves up against against a side reinvigorated by a renewed push for the play-off places. Northampton have not reinvented the wheel this season, but the games they have won have been built upon their traditional recipe of brute strength up front. Harry Mallinder, however, has been a real find in midfield, and his emergence has coincided with their upturn in form. Newcastle, meanwhile, continue to be steered by the reliable presence of Andy Goode – can they make it two scalps from the East Midlands in consecutive weeks?
It was a dogfight against Leicester last week, and the Tigers weren’t up for it (which you have to admit is unlike them). Northampton will be braced for exactly the same, and they are masters of it – they should have enough to force Newcastle’s recent inconsistency to continue. Northampton by 5.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images