Sale Sharks v Bath Rugby
Sale’s start to this season has been vastly more solid than last time around, but then the same can be said about their visitors this weekend. The Sharks’ Cipriani experiment continues as he is backed again, after a couple of quietly impressive performances in recent rounds. Captain Dan Braid is one of the unsung heroes of the league, getting through an enormous amount of work and leading by example. Bath have named a strong line-up, showing how seriously they are taking the challenge of Sale. Anthony Watson and Rob Webber miss out through injury; Ollie Devoto and Ross Batty come in in their places. All eyes will be on George Ford after his storming start to the season – another impressive performance on a Friday night away trip up North would bolster his reputation no end.
Sale are not the poor side they were last season, but Bath have also shown significant improvements this year and they should record another win here. Bath by 5.
London Irish v Harlequins
This game last season was decided by a very controversial late try from Tom Casson, which arguably should not have stood. Irish are unlikely to still be feeling injustice at that, but it could provide a little extra motivation for them should they need it. Like Sale, they have looked better at the beginning of this season than last, but crucially they only have one win to their name so far. Marland Yarde has been scoring tries for fun, and his duel with Ugo Monye will be fascinating as two wingers with pace and power in abundance go head to head. Quins rotate in the centres, where Matt Hopper comes in for George Lowe to partner Tom Casson. Danny Care is rested and drops to the bench, giving Karl Dickson his first chance to shine from the start.
Harlequins’ two home losses have seriously hampered their play-off ambitions already, but London Irish cannot boast anywhere near the kind of power game that Saints and Sarries did to turn them over. It might not be as clear-cut as many would expect, but the visitors should return to winning ways here. Harlequins by 7.
Saracens v London Wasps
One name dominates both teamsheets for this fixture: Goode. Alex is named at fly-half for Saracens as Owen Farrell is rested on the bench, while that is exactly where Andy finds himself for Wasps. Joe Carlisle gets his first start for the visitors, robbing fans of a jolly Goode (sorry) battle at outside half. The home side also give a first start of the season to Will Fraser at openside, and new signing James Johnstone starts at tighthead. Jamie George, scorer of two tries on the opening day of the season, also comes back in at hooker as Schalk Brits is rotated to the bench. Wasps will look to give Christian Wade and Elliot Daly the space to hurt Saracens, and on the artificial pitch they could certainly do just that. Wade in particular be keen to impress and show up one of his rivals for the England shirt, Chris Ashton.
Saracens may have made a fair few changes, but are in imperious form at the moment and at home should have no issue dispatching Wasps. Saracens by 16.
Worcester Warriors v Newcastle Falcons
It is fast approaching crisis time for Worcester. They looked lacklustre again last weekend, never threatening to win at Adam’s Park against Wasps. Having already lost at home to a team tipped to battle with them for relegation, London Irish, they simply cannot afford to drop more points against promoted Newcastle. It’s Dean Ryan v Dean Richards in the coaching arena, but it is the players on the pitch will decide this game. Newcastle have looked the better side thus far, but have still only managed one try. Conversely, Worcester have conceded a whopping 14 five-pointers already. They may have managed six tries themselves – one more than Harlequins and the same as Exeter and Gloucester – but if they keep conceding at this rate they will not survive this season. Rory Clegg continues at 10 for the visitors, and has looked good in the last couple of games meaning the fit-again Phil Godman has to settle for the bench.
Mieres v Clegg will be an intriguing battle, and one that will go a long way to deciding this one. Worcester just seem in such disarray at the moment, that Newcastle could claim another vital win on the road to go with their efforts in Salford. Newcastle by 3.
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints
It’s a repeat of last season’s final at Welford Road this weekend, and it promises to be as tasty an affair as ever between these two great rivals. They have scarily similar records so far this season, having conceded the exact same amount of points, scored the same amount of tries, and picked up the same amount of bonus points (two for tries scored, one losing). There’s also only four between them in terms of points scored. The hosts have a long injury list but can still boast an impressive team – the loss of Tuilagi in the midfield is a huge one, however, as anyone who witnessed his one man destruction job at Franklin’s Gardens last season can tell you. The front row battle is one to relish as England colleagues and rivals go, quite literally, head-to-head. Dan Cole will be shoving against Alex Corbisiero, with Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley doing the same next to them. After the antics of the final, that will be spicy to say the least – if there’s ever a front row battle to get excited about, this is it.
Both sides have strong benches, but for potentially the first time in a while the Saints’ is arguably more impressive. It will be feisty, close and no doubt controversial – but you wouldn’t have an East Midlands derby any other way. Home advantage to swing it. Leicester by 3.
Gloucester Rugby v Exeter Chiefs
This West Country derby sees two teams that have yet to properly hit their straps face off. Gloucester’s was a hard fought win at Newcastle last weekend, to prove they have a bit of grit about them to match their undoubted sparkle, while the Chiefs were downed at home by the Tigers in a game that saw them lack a vital clinical edge. The battle at fly-half will be fascinating, as the measured game of Gareth Steenson comes up against the mercurial brilliance of Freddie Burns. That said, the latter has yet to fully fire this season, and with George Ford impressing over in his old stomping ground at Bath, he will know a big performance is necessary here. Tom James against James Simpson-Daniel is a battle of two players who could, in another life, have had significantly more international caps. They have different styles – will Simpson-Daniel’s jinking brilliance or James’ awkward, raw power and pace come out on top?
Another game that is a tough one to call (quite a theme this weekend) could well be decided by home advantage as well. Gloucester by 6.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images