Harlequins v Northampton
This is certainly one of the most difficult picks of the round – if not the season. Quins looked sluggish at times last weekend and were arguably lucky to scrape by an exuberant-looking Wasps team. Saints, on the other hand, humiliated Exeter in a half-hour power performance, before taking their foot off the pedal somewhat. Both sides have rotated this weekend, but it has to be said the Saints team looks vastly superior – on paper. Powerhouse Samu Manoa comes into the team, while kiwi James Wilson partners the excellent Luther Burrell in midfield. For Quins the Stoop factor will play a role, while in the back row they have their own giant-sized player of islander heritage in the form of Maurie Fa’asavalu. If he and Manoa or Lawes collide there could be carnage. Then, of course, there is this season’s great subplot – Wood v Robshaw. Keep your eyes on that one.
Looking at the line-ups it is easy to edge towards an away win (especially with the sublime Fotuali’i getting his first start), but back in front of their home fans Quins should just have enough to squeak through. Quins by 3
Sale Sharks v Newcastle Falcons
A week ago this looked like a relegation battle – after Sale’s highly impressive win at Gloucester, however, that doesn’t quite sit right anymore. They were excellent down at Kingsholm and if they perform like that again – led by their Kiwi warrior captain Dan Braid – they will surely have too much for Newcastle. The loss of Jonny Leota in the midfield is a blow, but the nous of Mark Cueto in that 13 channel will more than make up for it. The Falcons, sadly, looked out of their depth against a roaring Bath pack (not something you see written very often) and will need to be significantly better to stand a chance this weekend on the road, especially against a Sale unit that itself went very well against Gloucester. Captain Will Welch returns to the flank which will be a much-needed boost for the men from the North East.
Newcastle won’t be as bad as last weekend while Sale might come back down to earth a bit, but it is still very difficult to see past a home victory here. Sale by 9
Exeter Chiefs v London Wasps
Both these teams suffered opening round losses, but only one looked anywhere close to being able to grab a win. Wasps were denied victory by the width of a post, while the Chiefs were humbled at the Gardens against Northampton. Back at Sandy Park, however, they will be a different prospect and will be yearning to get back out there and prove last weekend was just a blip. Highly-rated young centre Sam Hill gets his first Premiership start, lining up against the vastly more experienced Wasps captain Chris Bell. Wasps’ teamsheet is dominated by the absence of the injured Tom Varndell, with 20-year old Josh Bassett taking his place. Ashley Johnson also comes back into the team and will add some ball-carrying ballast to the back-row.
Wasps were impressive last weekend but are not yet a good enough team to win at Sandy Park. Chiefs by 11
Worcester Warriors v London Irish
These two were both comprehensively beaten in the opening round, and this fixture already looks like an important one in terms of relegation. Despite both losing, they were playing teams almost certain to feature at the business end of the season, and there was enough in both of their games to show they will make a good fight of it this season. Worcester’s Josh Matavesi was particularly impressive, selling one of the most outrageous dummies seen at Welford Road since Austin Healey’s day. For Irish there was a beautiful move that resulted in a try for Marland Yarde, who moments earlier had appeared to be down with cramp. Even with cramp he is one of the most dangerous finishers in the league.
Neither team’s line-up is brimming with quality, but it should nonetheless be an entertaining game. If Mieres can sort his kicking demons out Worcester should record an important win. Worcester by 10.
Bath v Leicester Tigers
The centenary edition of one of rugby’s oldest rivalries should be an absolute cracker. The Tigers recorded a comfortable win last weekend but have an horrific injury list: Flood, Croft, B Youngs, Tuilagi, Parling, Deacon ,Benjamin, Camacho, Hawkins, Tait, Kitchener, and Smith are all missing from their first team squad. Niki Goneva is named in the centre this week which is either genius or ludicrous – the likelihood is we will see both on Saturday. His try in the dying seconds last week was a joy to behold, but he is also capable of losing the ball far too easily. Seb de Chaves gets his first start in the engine room alongside Ed Slater, forming a partnership with plenty of ball-carrying power. The line-out, however, will be a worry with no Parling or Croft. Bath’s team sees two chances with the mercurial (to put it nicely) Henson in for the injured Eastmond – he and opposite man Allen are like chalk and cheese, and their battle will be fascinating to watch. Elsewhere fit again Guy Mercer comes in for Mat Gilbert.
You can never write the Tigers off, but their injury list is so debilitating. Bath also look finally to have a pack with a bit of grunt about it, which could lead them to what would be a huge victory. Bath by 5.
Saracens v Gloucester Rugby
It is likely to be panic stations for Gloucester after this weekend. They will be itching to bounce back from that shock opening round defeat to Sale at home, but the last place they would have wanted to visit to pick up the pieces is Allianz Park. Sarries’ new home has quickly become a daunting place to play. The Cherry and Whites’ pack was overpowered by Sale last weekend, so to think about what this brutish Saracens outfit will do to it is a scary prospect. There could be carnage. Ben Morgan drops to the bench for the Westcountrymen to accommodate Akapusi Qera, with Kalamafoni shifting to no.8. Sarries’ replacement front-row options read: Schalk Brits, Mako Vunipola, James Johnstone. No prizes for guessing where they will be focussing their efforts.
The Sarries pack will steamroll an undercooked Gloucester unit and lead them to a comfortable victory, most likely with a second bonus point of the season. Saracens by 20.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images