Bath v Gloucester
There is no such thing as a friendly rivalry, but if there were, this would be about as far from it as you can get. There are few other fixtures in rugby that stir the locals up quite like a West Country derby, and under the lights at the Rec, with the beautiful backdrop of the city of Bath, we are in for a great game. The Bath line-up looks powerful and pacey, with several of their stars back in the fold. Anthony Watson is back at fullback, where he has the ability to launch devastating counterattacks with his fellow flyers Rokodoguni and Banahan. It is up front, however, where this game will be won, as has been the case with many Gloucester games this season. James, Webber and Perinise will be looking to get stuck into Murphy, Dawidiuk and Harden, while Matt Kvesic will be tested by one of the best back-rowers in the world, François Louw. Freddie Burns against George Ford is a potential duel for the future of the England fly-half berth, and the former has some catching up to do in terms of form this season.
These games are rarely won by huge margins, but in the tight-knit atmosphere that is the Rec, Bath’s excellent forwards should propel them to victory. Bath by 5.
Exeter Chiefs v Worcester Warriors
The international periods are often when Exeter come into their own. They lose few players, so retain the core of their squad that serves them so well. Their teamsheet for Saturday shows impressive strength in depth, with Alex Brown, Haydn Thomas and Tom James all to come off the bench. Tongan flyer Fetu’u Vainikolo keeps the Welshman on the bench, and will hope to be given the space off which he thrives. Gareth Steenson directs the Exeter ship superbly from fly-half, and just never seems to have a bad game. Their visitors this week are in turmoil. Worcester cannot buy a win at the moment, and despite the injection of their Argentian contingent into league affairs, they are unlikely to get one at Sandy Park. Ignacio Mieres will be fired up to get one over his old club, for whom he spent a lot of time warming the bench, but fire in the belly is not what he lacks – it is ice in his veins when making the all-important kicks that has been missing this season. That is not good when up against Steenson.
The hosts should canter to a bonus-point win. Exeter by 18.
Harlequins v Sale Sharks
At the beginning of the season, not many would have had Sale sitting above Harlquins when this fixture came around. Quins’ season has been mixed to say the least, and their injury woes have not helped. The tight five has looked overawed at times, but against Sale that shouldn’t be too much of an issue so they can at least expect to have some ball to work with. The Sharks have been the surprise package this season, roaring out of the blocks in complete contrast to their start last season. Looking at their backline, it combines the guile of Cipriani and Miller with the power and force of Tuitupou and Leota – there is plenty of scope for tries there.
If Nick Evans has his kicking boots on, despite their worrying lack of depth (a quick look at the bench reveals plenty of names likely to be unfamiliar to most), Harlequins should record a win. Sale will be in the mix for a bonus point though. Harlequins by 6.
Northampton Saints v Saracens
This is undoubtedly the headline fixture of the weekend. First plays second in what is a battle between two ferocious packs – that forward battle is going to be one to savour. Saracens have been harder hit by international call-ups, that is for certain. Both Vunipolas are retained by England, as are Owen Farrell, Joel Tomkins and Chris Ashton. Duncan Taylor and Chris Wyles have deputised well in the centres this season, but up against the rampant Luther Burrell and the always-impressive George Pisi this weekend they face their toughest challenge yet. The Saints are without Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Lee Dickson – but no matter, Samu Manoa, Phil Dowson and Kahn Fotuali’i fill their boots. Alex Corbisiero will be the biggest loss, and Ken Pisi will offer something different to George North on the wing. Ben Foden could play a blinder, likely to be smarting from not being retained by England despite his good form.
Both teams have players missing but Sarries have been hit harder – away from home that will take its toll. Northampton by 6.
London Wasps v Leicester Tigers
This fixture could not have come at much of a better time for Wasps. The Tigers have 15 first team squad members missing, and come with only two fit centres – kiwis Dan Bowden and Terence Hepetema. The hosts, on the other hand, bolster their ranks by welcoming back Tom Palmer, Ashley Johnson and Elliot Daly into their starting line-up. While the Tigers name a five-two forwards to backs split on their bench, including highly-rated Argentine back-row Pablo Matera, and will look to play a tight game, Wasps will turn to the dazzling talents of Christian Wade and Daly to score from open play. That said, their pack has been better this season, and with several heavyweights absent from the visitors’ line-up they will fancy their chances to gain at least parity. Much focus will land on the prodigiously talented Owen Williams, who gets his first start in a Tigers shirt. His battle with the vastly more experienced Andy Goode will be fascinating.
The Tigers have not won at Adams Park since, incredibly, 2007. That fact, allied with the core of their team being ripped out, could see the hosts sneak a win. Wasps by 3.
Newcastle Falcons v London Irish
The final game of the weekend sees the Falcons host the Exiles. The visitors arrive without their most prized asset; finishing sensation Marland Yarde, who is set to start for England this autumn and has thus been retained by Lancaster. Ian Humphreys returns to partner Tomás O’Leary at half-back, despite the good form of Shane Geraghty, who drops to the bench. Chris Hala’ufia also returns to the Irish team, and will provide plenty of go forward with ball in hand. The Falcons continue with Rory Clegg at 10, with former Scotland international Phil Godman having to settle for a spot on the bench, while Mike Blair continues to call the shots from nine. Danny Barnes, who joined from Munster in the off season, gets his first start in the centre.
These two sit on nine points each, both having won twice and both having beaten Worcester away. It will be a close game, and being so difficult to call it is tempting just to go with home advantage. Newcastle by 5.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images