Bath Rugby v Saracens
Saracens have won their last seven games against Bath, four of those at the Rec, so they bring a strong psychological advantage into this game. That said, this is a different Bath side to the one seen in recent years. There is an exciting blend of youth and experience, the cool heads of the likes of Peter Stringer and François Louw bringing out the best in the raw talent of Anthony Watson, George Ford et al. Saracens have missed their international contingent, but welcome back Alex Goode and Mako Vunipola, while Ford and Dave Attwood also return for Bath.
If Bath are to be true title challengers, this is the kind of game they need to be winning. Unbeaten at home so far this season, they should do just that. Bath by 5.
Exeter Chiefs v London Irish
There’s no denying it – Exeter are in a slump. They’ve lost their last five Premiership games, a run stretching back to before Christmas. That said, they have been on the wrong side of some close scorelines, particularly at Sandy Park, which is where they welcome London Irish to this weekend. The Exiles have impressed in recent weeks, and were inches away from beating the Tigers last weekend after having done similar to Wasps and Saracens in weeks previous. Marland Yarde returns for the visitors, while James O’Connor shifts to the centres. For Exeter, Henry Slade is preferred to Gareth Steenson at fly-half, while Fetu’u Vainokolo, who provided us with one of the moments at the season at Allianz Park last week, is dropped to the bench.
The Sandy Park faithful have been yearning for a win for some time, and after several near misses Exeter should return to winning ways this weekend – but Irish won’t go down without a fight. Exeter by 3.
Harlequins v Worcester Warriors
Worcester head coach Dean Ryan took the strange decision this week to publicly criticise certain players in his squad – this weekend at the Stoop we will see whether he has lit a fire under them, or merely alienated them further. Desperate for a win, a visit to a team fighting tooth and nail for a play-off place is far from ideal. Quins, for their part, have been stuttering in the absence of their England stars, losing last week at Gloucester. Their last two home games, against teams in the wrong half of the table, have been won by a combined margin of five points – so Worcester will take something from that. Ryan Lamb makes his first start for the Warriors, hoping to succeed where Ignacio Mieres and Paul Warwick have so failed so far this season.
Quins have not been at their best recently, but they won’t need to be to see off Worcester. Harlequins by 12.
London Wasps v Sale Sharks
Wasps pushed Bath close at the Rec last weekend, and a losing bonus point from the team in third place will give them confidence going into this game. There is no Elliot Daly for the hosts – presumably being rested – but the back three of Tommy Bell, Will Helu and Josh Bassett still has plenty about it to worry Sale. The Sharks name Danny Cipriani on the bench and opt for Nick Macleod at fly-half – the ex-Wasp has been linked with a move back to his old club, which could have something to do with the decision.
Both sides are playing well at the moment, so it’s home advantage that could sway it. Wasps by 5.
Northampton Saints v Gloucester Rugby
Glocuester’s performances have markedly improved in recent weeks – a win over Harlequins and pushing the Tigers all the way at Welford Road is testament to that. Still, a trip to Franklin’s Gardens will be another step up, and one they are unlikely to come out of with a positive result. The only team to beat Northampton this season in the league are, however, the Cherry and Whites, who triumphed at Kingsholm back in September. Ben Foden remains on the bench for the hosts, while Freddie Burns is restored to the starting line-up for Gloucester.
Franklin’s Gardens is too big an ask, even for a resurgent team like Gloucester. Northampton by 10.
Newcastle Falcons v Leicester Tigers
Manu Tuilagi dominates the headlines this weekend, as he comes straight back into the Tigers’ starting line-up after a long injury lay-off. With playmakers Dan Bowden and Owen Williams inside him, and arch-finisher Vereniki Goneva outside him, Tigers fans will be hoping for tries. Newcastle at least have an experienced player opposite Tuilagi, with Gonzalo Tiesi having faced him before for various other clubs.
The Tigers have been sub-par recently but were better last weekend against London Irish – it’s hard to see anything but an away win here. Tigers by 9.
Do you agree? Who do you think will win this weekend?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images