Kate Bamber returns in 2011 with the weekly rundown of domestic fixtures this weekend, offering expert predictions as to which way the games will go.
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints
Undoubtedly the biggest clash of the weekend is between East Midlands rivals Leicester and Northampton. The Tigers climbed to the top of the Aviva Premiership last Sunday thanks to their win over Exeter, replacing the Saints who had been in pole position since round eight. The last six matches between these two sides have all been won by the home side on the day, including the 27-19 victory by Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in round one.
Despite a slow start to the season and being plagued by injuries the Tigers have lost only one of their last seven matches in all competitions. Richard Cockerill’s men seem to be hitting their stride, both in Europe and in the Premiership. Last weekend the Saints slipped up at home to Harlequins but have not lost successive games since April. Add to this the fact they are unbeaten in their last five away games in all competitions and Northampton are in relatively good shape to do their first league double over the Tigers since 2003/04. I’m looking forward to an absolutely epic clash up front between arguably the two best front fives in the league. Throw in a couple of Tuilagi brothers and the magic of Chris Ashton and this game looks set to be a corker.
My prediction: I really have no idea. My heart says Northampton but my head says the championship winning mentality of the Tigers will win through. Leicester by 3.
Saracens v London Irish
For me, one of the highlights of round 12 was watching old man Mark Cueto dazzle a flailing Gavin Henson and crash over for a try. Welcome back, Gav. It pretty much summed things up at Saracens at the moment: showing great promise but not quite living up to it. Sarries’ league form has been patchy in the last few rounds. The 28-22 reversal at the hands of Sale means they have claimed three wins and three losses from their last six Premiership fixtures.
However, that is nothing when you look at London Irish. The Exiles don’t do things by halves and look to have gone one step further from the end of last season when their form faded away like the popularity of an X-Factor winner. (Remember Leon Jackson? No, me neither). Irish’s form has plummeted off the edge of a cliff over recent weeks, having lost nine games in a row. The sight of head coach Toby Booth sitting with his head in his hands after Olly Barkley snatched a one point win last weekend said it all. London Irish have slipped from the top of the league table in round seven to now sit in fifth place, picking up just one league point in their last five matches. Look away Exiles fans, but this is your poorest run in the league since 1997/98.
My prediction: Saracens by 6.
Bath v Leeds Carnegie
Bath ended their five game losing run last weekend thanks in part to the goal kicking of Olly Barkley. The cool as a cucumber centre slotted a last-gasp penalty to help Bath nick a win over out of form London Irish. The smile on coach Steve Meehan’s face was a treat, but the man whose smile was beaming much more brightly (albeit behind closed doors) was Leeds coach Neil Back. New Year’s Day proved to be a fresh start for the Yorkshire side who are currently super-glued to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership table. Carnegie outmuscled Gloucester 15-13 to record their first league win of the season and their third consecutive win in all competitions. In Leeds terms, that is form.
However, Back’s men haven’t won at the Rec for five years and Bath have beaten Leeds on their last six meetings. Saying that, Bath are hardly a team in a run of form despite Bruce Craig’s millions. Arguably there isn’t a better time for Carnegie to engineer a smash and grab job on their ninth placed hosts and come away with four points.
My prediction: A win for either of these teams could set the tone for a much needed revival. A great deal depends on the weather – if it stays dry and Bath’s backline is given the chance to shine then I think Leeds will come unstuck. Bath by 5.
Harlequins v Wasps
Harlequins pulled off the shock of round 12 when they defeated Northampton at Franklins Gardens. In doing so they became the first team to beat the Saints in their own back yard this season. Quins have now won their last four games in all competitions and their record at the Stoop is good. The last time they lost there was on 11 September, ironically to the Saints. A win over their London rivals Wasps would be another massive boost for Conor O’Shea’s men having not triumphed over their close rivals in more than two years.
When these two sides met in round one the score was deadlocked on 29-all and Quins will see this weekend as a great chance to go one better. However, despite the cold weather the Wasps have stirred to life and have only lost one of their last eight games in all competitions. Sadly this was in the not too distant past in the infinitely forgettable 13-6 defeat by Saracens at Wembley on Boxing Day.
My prediction: Fly-half Nick Evans is in great form for Quins and with home advantage and a massive confidence boost from beating the Saints, I think it will be Harlequins by 9.
Gloucester v Exeter Chiefs
Exeter started their first season in the Premiership with a shock 22-10 win over the cherry and whites in round one when the two teams met at Sandy Park. The history books reveal that the Chiefs are winless at Kingsholm in their two previous visits but much has changed since their last loss there in 2002.
Gloucester will be smarting from their defeat by basement boys Leeds last weekend and if they lose to Exeter they will have lost three in a row for the first time since November 2009. However, Gloucester are unbeaten in the league at home since October that year when Wasps were the visitors. Exeter’s form might have slipped from the opening few rounds but they have still managed to take at least one league point from six of their last seven matches.
My prediction: Gloucester will be desperate to stop the rot and in front of the Shed I think they will do just that. Gloucester by 7.
Newcastle Falcons v Sale Sharks
Strugglers Sale marked the departure of head coach Mike Brewer with a shock 28-22 win over Saracens last Sunday. That result, along with a win for Leeds means the Falcons – who have won just one of their last eight league games – must be glancing nervously over their shoulders. The Sharks won 35-18 when the two teams met in round one and are going for a first ever league double over the Falcons. However, Newcastle have won their last three home games in all competitions with their crucial clash against fellow relegation candidates Leeds called off over the festive period. If Sale can win at Kingston Park it will be quite an achievement – last year they only recorded one league win on the road.
My prediction: It’s a tricky one to call but I think Sale might edge this to heap more misery on Newcastle. Sale by 7.