Kate Bamber brings us her previews and predictions ahead of another weekend of Aviva Premiership Rugby. How will teams fare without their international stars?
Northampton Saints v Newcastle Falcons
Can anyone stop the Saints? OK, so Saracens beat them at Vicarage Road a month ago but since then Northampton have been unstoppable in both the league and Heineken Cup. The hallmark of a great team is grinding out a win from a poor performance, something Northampton showed against Castres before producing a get out of jail free card in their late comeback over Edinburgh. But Saints are also skilled in putting teams to the sword, making light work of Wasps in their 37-10 away win last weekend.
However, international call ups will affect Northampton more than most and I think now could be the perfect time for the Falcons to strike. Saracens were lucky to win at Kingston Park last Sunday, a last-gasp Alex Goode penalty sealing the points in the 15-13 win. Newcastle will no doubt feel frustrated with only a losing bonus point after scoring the only try of the game, but even without Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden I think Northampton will have too much for their visitors to handle – especially as Euan Murray and Joe Ansbro could still feature for the Saints with Scotland’s Autumn Internationals only starting on 13 November.
My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against Northampton at the moment. Second plays 11th – it can only go one way, right? Saints by 12.
Saracens v Exeter Chiefs
Well, well, well, where do I start with Saracens? The future’s bright, the fly half’s orange? Of course the big news this week is everyone’s favourite tango-tanned rugby player has quickstepped over to Vicarage Road and signed a deal. I am of course talking about Gavin Henson, star of BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, who will soon be tripping the light fandango in Watford after not playing for 18 months. I can only deduce the signing has come about following fly-half Derick Hougaard’s Achilles injury which could rule him out for the rest of the season.
Henson aside, Sarries are doing alright in the league thank you very much. Third behind Irish and Northampton, this week they do battle with Exeter who have slipped down to 10th despite some spirited performances. Last week, leaders London Irish pipped the Chiefs to the post in a very close game at Sandy Park, Gareth Steenson again scoring the majority of Exeter’s points. Sarries scraped a win against strugglers Newcastle last week, Alex Goode showing he can kick the points when the pressure is on. At home and with David Strettle and Brad Barritt released by England coach Martin Johnson, I can only see one winner.
My prediction: Saracens to sashay to a 16 point win.
Gloucester Rugby v Leicester Tigers
Gloucester won this fixture last season and a win against the visiting Tigers would be their fourth successive win in the league and fifth Premiership win from seven this season. Not bad, not bad at all. Now, is it just me, or have Bryan Redpath’s cherry and whites been flying under the radar and quietly doing quite well for themselves?
As ever, all eyes are on Leicester, Bath and Northampton. London Irish are leaders so they have been getting plenty of plaudits, and of course, pundits always spare a moment to take a cursory glance at the other end of the table, just to make sure Leeds are still there. But Gloucester, now fourth in the league, are starting to fire after a slightly shaky start, last week’s late Brett Deacon try seeing off a second-half comeback by Harlequins. After a poor couple of seasons by their own standards, are the cherry and whites getting back to their best?
This week they will be without second-row Dave Attwood, prop Paul Doran-Jones and centre Mike Tindall who are all away on England duty, whilst Leicester will be without England half-back pairing Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, second row Tom Croft and prop Dan Cole. Hooker George Chuter will be available after being released. Last week, Flood kicked all the points in the Tigers’ 21-15 win over Bath and will be missed. Can Billy Twelvetrees step into the breach once again? I imagine so, as strength-in-depth never seems to be a problem at Leicester, but the Tigers haven’t won on the road in the league since round 20 last season. Add Gloucester’s great record at Kingsholm and I’m going for a home win.
My prediction: Hopefully this will be a high-scoring game, and I’m sure Brett Deacon would love to get on the scoresheet against his former club. Gloucester by 7.
Harlequins v Bath Rugby
Fly-half Nick Evans was so nearly the star of the show for Harlequins last weekend, bagging 21 of his side’s 26 points against Gloucester with a try, two conversions and four penalties. However, it wasn’t enough as Brett Deacon broke Quins’ hearts with a late score. Over in the opposite corner to Evans this weekend is England cast-off Olly Barkley, a man who plays at 12 not 10 but has been on regular kicking duties for Bath. Last weekend, Barkley scored all of his side’s 15 points in their defeat at Welford Road and I imagine he will want to put in a performance to make his snub by the England selectors seem even more ridiculous.
Of course, Sam Vesty is Evans’ opposite number and he will do well to match arguably one of the best fly-halves in the world. Bath look to have lost their way a bit this season, their Heineken Cup dreams already hanging by a thread after two rounds and only winning one of their last four league games. However, they will be boosted by the release of England skipper Lewis Moody for this game and will be looking to end the run of five defeats from their last five visits to the Stoop. David Wilson will not feature for Bath, but Matt Banahan returns, whilst Quins stars Danny Care and Nick Easter are kept in the England camp.
My prediction: On current form and at home I think Harlequins will win by 9.
Leeds Carnegie v London Wasps
If ever there was a team who could suck all of the joy out of watching a game of rugby, then at the moment that team is Leeds. It’s not easy for me to admit that as I am a big Leeds Carnegie fan, but their start to the season has been woeful. Six league games, six defeats, rooted to the bottom of the table with only two losing bonus points to show for it. Last Friday’s dire 6-3 home defeat by Sale was a new low – a game Leeds should have won after having the vast majority of possession and attack.
Now, flanker Hendre Fourie and hooker Steve Thompson are away on England duty and this Sunday’s task looks set to be a tough one as the struggling Wasps are the visitors to Headingley. Wasps coach Shaun Edwards stated this week that losing to Leeds is not an option. The High Wycombe based club have only won two of their six league games and approach this match on the back of a 37-10 thumping at home by Northampton – their worst loss at Adams Park since 2004.
However, Wasps will be boosted by the return of England call ups Tim Payne, Dominic Waldouck, Joe Worsley and Dan Ward-Smith who have been released for this game. But Wasps beware, Leeds did the double over the Londoners last season, the first win kickstarting their climb off the foot of the table. Can Carnegie head coach Neil Back do it again?
My prediction: I doubt it. Leeds look like they are starting to gel but they are still lacking much needed spark in the backline. Wasps by 8.
London Irish v Sale Sharks
Finally, leaders London Irish welcome Sale to the Majedski on Sunday afternoon. Both sides will be missing key players, with Sale fly-half Charlie Hodgson being retained by England due to an injured Jonny Wilkinson. Prop Andrew Sheridan is another Shark who won’t be making the trip to Reading along with wing Mark Cueto. Irish will have to do without the guile of Delon Armitage as he bids to wrestle the number 15 shirt back from Ben Foden.
Form wise, the Exiles are unbeaten at home in any competition this season and are on a four-game winning streak. Sale, on the other hand, made hard work of beating Leeds in an 80 minute snore-fest under Friday night lights to win their third league game of the season. How well will Sale do without Hodgson running their game? It’s a tough one, and London Irish are one of the teams you would prefer to avoid whilst your star players are bonding at Pennyhill Park. A lot rests upon which version of Ryan Lamb turns up on Sunday afternoon: will it be Ryan Lamb the enigma or will it be Ryan Lamb the assured fly-half? We will have to wait and see.
My prediction: London Irish by 18.
By Kate Bamber (@Bamberio)