Gloucester v Leicester Tigers
Both these teams will be disappointed with their seasons thus far, lending this game a real must-win feel. The Tigers’ triumph over London Irish last weekend saw them halt a run of three games without a win, while Gloucester’s loss at Harlequins again highlighted their lack of a strong front five. Unfortunately for them, that is precisely the Tigers’ strength, and this game will be a real game of opposites; the power of Leicester’s pack and set piece, against the brilliance of Gloucester’s backs. The hosts welcome back Henry Trinder at outside centre, who lines up against Adam Thompstone, drafted into the midfield due to the Tigers having only one recognised centre fit. As a result, watch out for 19-year old Javiah Pohe coming off the bench, a centre very much in the Manu Tuilagi mould.
If Gloucester can avoid getting bogged down in a forward battle, they stand an excellent chance. So often, though, it is the forwards that win games, and in that regard Leicester are so much stronger. Tigers by 3.
London Irish v London Wasps
Christian Wade returns for Wasps, but the news that Marland Yarde is out for 12-14 weeks with a hip injury means we are cruelly deprived of seeing the two most promising English wingers go head to head. Still, with Wade, Ojo, O’Connor and Daly all on the teamsheets, there remains the potential for plenty of fireworks in this one. London Irish have been playing better than their league position suggests, while Wasps, prior to their humbling by Bath last weekend, had looked like a team perfectly capable of challenging for a European spot this season. Both will be keen to bounce back from disappointments in the last round.
James O’Connor may not have tasted victory in a London Irish shirt yet, but that could well change this weekend. Irish by 9.
Saracens v Sale Sharks
Sale look a completely different team to last season. With an in-form Danny Cipriani at fly-half, and a captain who leads perfectly by example in Dan Braid, they have already surprised a few teams. A trip to Allianz Park, however, will be likely be a step too far for them. It is too early to call it a fortress, but they have lost only once there since moving in. They have also been running in tries for fun this season. Their rotation policy continues, with Jacques Burger, who made an astonishing 34 tackles last weekend, nowhere to be seen. Will Fraser starts in his stead, while in the backs Owen Farrell, interestingly, is named at 12 to make room for Charlie Hodgson at 10.
Sarries are on a roll, and should win this one very comfortably. Saracens by 23.
Worcester Warriors v Northampton Saints
Worcester are in free-fall, so the last team they would have wanted to welcome to Sixways is a rampant Northampton. The Saints have lost just once this year in the Premiership, and are the top try scorers. They have, however, made wholesale changes from the team that beat Newcastle last weekend. Dom Waldouck gets a rare start in the centres, while Kiwi Glenn Dickson is drafted in at fullback after injuries to Ben Foden and James Wilson. In the pack, England’s Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood both start, while Courtney Lawes is on the bench. What more can be said about Worcester? To borrow a well used cliché, they do not look like they could buy a win at the moment. Chris Pennell has looked consistently a cut above the rest from fullback this season; if they are to have any chance of reeling in the teams above them, the rest of the squad must up their game to his level.
While Worcester will be desperate for a win, and desperation can do funny things, this will not be the week they get their first win of the season. With Saints’ raft of changes, however, they may not be as fluent as they have been, but should still record a comfortable victory. Northampton by 15.
Bath v Exeter Chiefs
Third play fifth in what looks set to be an intriguing West Country derby. Bath are in fine form, having smashed Wasps away from home in a performance that put a spotlight once again on their surprisingly excellent pack this season. They welcome back François Louw, who captains the team from open-side, to the back-row, while in the back three Horacio Agulla and Anthony Watson also come into the starting line-up. Exeter were arguably unlucky to lose to Saracens last weekend, and have a settled team that has already challenged some of the traditional giants this season. Jack Nowell is increasingly a handful on the wing, while Gareth Steenson is one of the most underrated fly-halves in the league.Up front Dean Mumm continues to lead by example, and young hooker Jack Yeandle, who has recently signed a new contract, continues to impress.
It will likely be hard fought, but Bath are looking ominously impressive at the moment, and should get a home win. Bath by 5.
Newcastle Falcons v Harlequins
Newcastle grafted impressively against Northampton last weekend, and despite not managing to score a point did at least deny the Saints four tries, which is what the hosts would have been targeting. They have not been pulverised in the manner many promoted clubs are at one stage or another, so Harlequins will know a tough challenge awaits them. Ex-Quin Rory Clegg will have to wait on the bench for his chance to get one over his old club, as Phil Godman is preferred to partner Mike Blair at half back once again. For Quins, several of the young stars that have so impressed over the international period continue in the starting line-up, with Joe Trayfoot and Luke Wallace in the back-row particularly standing out. Promising youngster Ollie Lindsay-Hague returns to the bench.
The Falcons will make them work for it, but Quins have seen an impressive upturn in form recently and will get another win here. Harlequins by 10.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images