Bath Rugby v London Wasps
Bath are a team on a mission. They seem determined to reel in the top two and not merely settle for a place in the top four – a hard fought but ultimately deserved victory over Exeter last weekend is evidence of as much. With no George Ford this weekend Tom Heathcote gets a start, with plenty to prove, too. Outside him Eastmond, Devoto, Watson and Abendanon were brilliant last weekend, and will look to tear it up once again. Wasps appear to have stalled slightly, having lost their last two including last weekend at home to London Irish. They too have plenty of exciting backs, but their forwards might find it tougher going against an impressive Bath unit.
Back at The Rec against a wobbling Wasps, the hosts should win this fairly comfortably. Bath by 10.
Gloucester v Harlequins
Harelquins, on paper, bring much better form into this one. They have won their last two, but the margins of victory have been four and one, over teams – Newcastle and Wasps – that they should have beaten more comfortably at home. Gloucester, meanwhile, arguably deserved to win at Welford Road last weekend, and although they have not won since the end of December there are signs of improvement recently. Fly-half Ryan Mills was excellent last weekend, while the hands of Trinder, Thomas and Sharples were delightful. With Quins seemingly faltering a bit, and missing plenty of their biggest names, could an upset be on the cards?
Gloucester will smell blood… but winning breeds winning, and ultimately Quins should sneak another one – but not by much. Harlequins by 3.
Worcester Warriors v Sale Sharks
These two have played several times already this season, and the Warriors are yet to win. In fact, other than Oyonnax, they are yet to win against anyone still. That said, the new year has brought an upturn in form – sadly, it has also brought them fixtures with some of the league’s biggest teams – plucky performances against the Tigers and Saints in recent weeks not enough to get them that elusive win. Will their luck change against the Sharks? Maybe, but Sale are still in touch with the top four and will be keen not to lose two in a row after going down to Saracens last weekend.
Worcester will probably win at some stage, but it is so difficult to back them after such a dismal season so far. Sale by 5.
London Irish v Leicester Tigers
This is the most difficult call of the weekend. League position points to a comfortable Tigers victory, but form very much does not. There is something of a crisis at Welford Road – Toby Flood’s alarmingly poor performances have seen him dropped to the bench. Other senior figures such as Ben Youngs, Anthony Allen, Julian Salvi and Jordan Crane are also struggling for form. They may have won their last two but could, and arguably should, have lost them. London Irish, meanwhile, have two brilliant away wins over Saracens (!) and Wasps in their last two games. They have a settled squad not too disrupted by the internationals, and Marland Yarde is back on the bench.
This is a banana skin for the Tigers, and they have been playing so dismally I can see them slipping on it. London Irish by 2.
Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints
While Saracens have faltered with a loss against London Irish, the Saints have been quietly going about their business during this international period, continuing to rack up the wins in a manner that shows depth previously unseen in their ranks. While their line-up is severely depleted again this weekend, they can still name the likes off Kahn Fotuali’i, Stephen Myler, Calum Clark and Samu Manoa in their team. Encouragingly, Ben Foden returns to the bench. Newcastle, meanwhile, battled hard against Harlequins last weekend and deserved their losing bonus point – but the facts remain that they have just seven tries to their name all season, and have not won since October.
While one of those facts could change this weekend, the other will almost certainly not. Northampton by 12.
Saracens v Exeter Chiefs
For all Saracens’ strength in depth, they have not looked great recently, shorn of their international stars. Brad Barritt is discarded by England and takes his place in the midfield, while fellow Six Nations participant Kelly Brown also plays. Exeter have been desperately unlucky not to get at least one win from their two bitterly close games against Northampton and Bath recently – sadly, they were both at home, and if you can’t beat members of the top four at home you are unlikely to be able to do so away.
Allianz Park has lost some of its aura since London Irish’s shock win there two weeks ago, but even so the hosts will be too good for Exeter this weekend. Saracens by 10.
What do you reckon? How do you see this weekend unfolding?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images