COVENTRY, ENGLAND – The Aviva Premiership returns this weekend after a seeming eternity away from the headlines, following the November tests and two weekends of European action. The pre-Christmas fixture list is packed with highlights, led by Wasps’ first match in Coventry and the East Midlands Derby. As always, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with a weekend preview, and all the news and notes that are fit to print.
Exeter v. Sale
Exeter have cooled off somewhat after their impossibly hot start, but this is the type of match that could mean the difference between a play-off with a French side and automatic entry into the European Rugby Champions Cup. Rob Baxter’s troops have responded admirably to his calls to improve after last season’s poor performance, while Sale have not quite been able to build upon their surprising sixth place finish in the previous campaign. Look to see if Nick McLeod starts once more in lieu of Danny Cipriani; the battle between newly resigned Gareth Steenson and the Sharks number 10 should be dynamic. Tom Johnson makes his return to the Chiefs after an extended absence, a rare bit of welcome injury-related news for Stuart Lancaster and staff.
Tigers v. Saints
The big match-up on everyone’s weekend calendar, Northampton have been simply dominant so far and are coming off the high of their record-breaking triumphs against Treviso. The Italians have a deservedly poor defensive reputation. Even so, the Saints potent attack would have given fits to any team in Europe, with a rare mixture of powerful backs and forwards capable of lethal finishing. Dylan Hartley committed his future to the Saints this week, a move that sent shockwaves through Montpelier, who were already presumed to have his signature lined up for 2015. Hartley admitted that Saints sticking with him through rough disciplinary patches created a sense of obligation to his boyhood club. Tigers will welcome Tom Croft back into their starting fifteen after a cameo against Toulon last weekend. The injury-prone flanker has the chance to be a huge difference maker when healthy, but he has essentially missed all of the last two seasons for Leicester, save two or three late season matches.
Harlequins v. Newcastle
Newcastle will travel to the Stoop for a tough assignment. Unfortunately for the northerners, they have not travelled well during their present term in the Premiership, with the sole away victory coming against Worcester in the Warriors’ campaign from hell. Quins will continue to blood Luke Wallace on the open side, with Chris Robshaw expected out for the next two to three weeks. Quins are also facing a fly-half injury crisis, lacking both starter Nick Evans and his cover Ben Botica. Tim Swiel will likely man the pivot once more, though his efforts with the boot cost the Londoners in Ireland. If Swiel falters again early, Danny Care may try his hand at goal kicking, or push the pace of the game with tap and go’s in marginal positions.
Gloucester v. Bath
A spicy matchup between West Country sides could result in plenty of offensive fireworks. Billy Twelvetrees has seemingly refound his form after a lost spring and fall, while George Ford continues to shine for Bath. These are exactly the kinds of fixtures that Mike Ford’s team require full points from if they are to challenge for a playoff spot. Bath’s back three of Anthony Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni, and Matt Banahan is as potent a strike force as any in the Premiership, while David Wilson regains his starting spot to add some technique to the Bath scrum. Richard Hibbard is another to watch; with the row between Gloucester and Wales over, he has sparkled in his first English season.
Saracens v. London Welsh
Not too much to note here, though Sarries may challenge their point scoring record against an abject Welsh team. Piri Weepu moves into the fly-half spot after a “successful” introduction against Edinburgh, a match the Welsh still lost. With players the quality of Olly Barkley and Weepu haunting the grounds, the Exiles continued capitulations confound. Welsh’s point differential this season is negative 339. The next lowest figure is London Irish, at negative 81. It may be difficult to place this season in historical context just yet, but all signs point to the Exiles being the worst side in Premiership history.
Wasps v. London Irish
Wasps will mark their first home match in Coventry with a Premiership record crowd of 30,000. The more attendance important figures will be in March and April, after the novelty has worn off. Nonetheless, it is an encouraging fresh start for a side that desperately needed an injection of funding. On the field, the Irish have struggled so far, and sit in eleventh place, below Newcastle and seven points adrift on Quins, the ninth place side. It could be a great start at a new home for Wasps, who will be looking to hang tries on the second most porous defense in the Premiership.