LEICESTER, ENGLAND – Now that all that remains is the leftovers, we’re sure you’re ready to sit in front of the TV (or computer screen) and devour some rugby all weekend long. RugbyWrapUp has your Aviva Premiership Weekend Preview, telling you matches to watch, which to give a miss, and what stories to watch out for as the Premiership rolls on.
Ones to Watch
You can start with the always fiercely contested matchup between Leicester and Gloucester on Friday, at 2:45 EST. Both teams have been scuffling, though for different reasons. The Tigers will welcome the return of Blaine Scully and the long-awaited club debut of Marcus Ayerza. Ayerza’s absence over the first two and a half months of the season may have Northern Hemisphere clubs thinking long and hard about signing Southern Hemisphere internationals, as they are only available for half the season, should their countries request their presence for the Rugby Championship. On-field concerns have dogged the Cherry and Whites, as their performances have not come close to matching their talent level. Billy Twelvetrees contines to make an impression on the domestic stage, though over three tests, he failed to make much of an impact.
Bath and Exeter will produce something compelling, though there’s no telling which side’s philosophy will win out; the attacking rugby that Bath has recently produced, or the battling spirit instilled by Rob Baxter in his charges. Exeter lie in fifth place, while Bath are entrenched in third, four points above their opponents. Kyle Eastmond is not in the side this weekend, and Bath appear to be making a final decision about what to do with their problem centre.
London Wasps and London Irish will match up at the Madjeski, with James O’Connor looking to continue his impressive form. Though the Australian recently made headlines for the wrong reasons yet again, (visiting Toulon before the ink on his contract with Irish was dry) he has unquestionably lifted the quality of his team. Though Irish lost at Welford Road last weekend, it was mainly the result of a disastrous scrum. Wasps have had difficulty replicating their form from last year, when Tom Varndell and Christian Wade tore teams to pieces on the flanks. Wade returns to the lineup this week, hoping to add some panache to a side that was truly dismal against Bath.
Ones to Skip
Worcester and Northampton will face one another in what will either be an instant classic, Rockyesque, underdog story, or a blowout for the favored team. I’d place money, and a lot of it, on the latter outcome. Northampton bring Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood back into the fold, and Samu Manoa rejoins the pack after impressing (finally!) for the US during the Autumn Internationals. The Saints could likely coast in second gear and still dismantle a Warrior side that have yet to collect a victory this year, a distinction not shared by any other top-flight side in Europe.
Newcastle will likewise face a difficult go of it against Harlequins, despite the London side’s struggles. Chris Robshaw will be given a rest by Conner O’Shea, but Luke Wallace and Nick Easter will more than make up the difference in the back row. On the bright side, the Falcons do get the benefit of playing at home, and have done better than many pundits expected in their first season back in the Premiership. Currently, they are 11 points clear of relegation, and ahead of three teams in the standings. Though the Heineken Cup (more on that debacle in Tuesday’s column) is out of reach, they can cement their place in next year’s Premiership with a few more victories at any stage of the season.
Saracens and Sale will line up at Allianz Park on Saturday, with the home team fielding an unfamiliar back line. Charlie Hodgson looks to get back in the swing of things after an extended absence, and he will continue as fly-half while Owen Farrell moves to inside centre, partnered with American Chris Wyles. Neil de Kock will be providing the service, while Jack Wilson will make his Premiership debut, a reward for solid performances in the LV Cup. Sale look to continue their renaissance, which dates back to this time last year, when they were mired in last place and looked in serious danger of relegation. Danny Cipriani has rebounded from the depths, and the Sharks currently sit only three points out of a Heineken Cup slot, with four wins from eight matches.
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