LEICESTER, ENGLAND – More than a month after the last Premiership action, league matches in England resume this weekend following a hiatus for the LV Cup and European affairs. The East Midlands were awarded two Friday night matches, as the league sought to avoid a viewing conflict with the main attraction in English rugby this weekend- the national team’s clash against Italy at Twickenham. Nonetheless, there are compelling matchups aplenty that could go a long way towards deciding the all-important fourth and sixth spots in the table, which are razor tight at the moment.
Leicester vs Gloucester
Leicester kick things off at Welford Road against old rivals Gloucester. Last year, the Six Nations did not proved too disruptive to coach Richard Cockerill’s lineup, with the Youngs brothers the only regular absence throughout the tournament. Now that the Tigers are approaching full health, their England contingent has been taken away, and they name a somewhat second choice lineup, featuring Neil Briggs at hooker with both Leo Ghiraldini and Tom Youngs out. Sam Harrison gets a rare start at scrum-half, while Freddie Burns tries to rescue what has been a half-lost season. Gloucester are without some stalwarts of their own, as they miss out on Billy Twelvetrees and Jonny May in their electric backline. James Hook still pulls the strings at 10, and the game may open up with some unfamiliar faces in Leicester’s forward pack. Gloucester dominated the last time these two teams met in October, taking the Tigers to task in a 33-16 demolition. Greig Laidlaw kicked eighteen points on the day, but he will represent Scotland in their quest for a rare victory against Wales.
Northampton vs. London Irish
There is a slight chance for an upset at Franklin’s Gardens, but the more likely result will see some motivated Saints looking to catch Stuart Lancaster’s eye rip the Exiles to shreds. Stephen Myler has been shuffled out of the England pecking order through little fault of his own, while Calum Clark’s star has fallen since he was named in the Elite Player Squad last season. The London Irish’s problem all season long has been scoring; they have managed a woeful return of 239 points from their 13 matches so far, the second lowest in the league. Their negative point differential of -112 has demonstrated that the new ownership group has a lot of work to do if they are to return to the upper echelon of the English game. One of these years, a promoted side will pull an Exeter and establish themselves at the expense of a longtime stalwart. London Irish must take steps to ensure that they do not become the next Leeds Carnegie.
Exeter Chiefs v. Newcastle
The Falcons have been soaring relatively high in the past three rounds, giving unexpected challenges to the Saints, Saracens, and Harlequins and defeating relegation-bound London Welsh handily. They will view this match against a suddenly vulnerable Exeter as a perfect opportunity to pick up some points. After all, the Falcons gave Exeter a shock when the Chiefs visited in October, winning 29-24 at home against the then-ascendant Sandy Park outfit. While the Chiefs have fallen off after their heady start, losing their last four league matches, they still represent a formidable challenge at home.
London Welsh vs. Sale Sharks
Sale will win this match by a lot; the only question is by how many points. The London Welsh’s weary slog through the Premiership continues until its inevitable date with relegation. Unlike the Worcester Warriors, who were similarly winless after an extended period last year, the Exiles have exhibited absolutely no fight in any of their matches, garnering a since miserable try-scoring bonus point. If they were to pick up a victory at some point, it might make one or two hopeless romantics very happy. More likely, they will go down as one of the worst teams in the history of top-flight rugby, without a single competitive match to their name.
Saracens v. Bath
What would be a marquee matchup any other weekend loses its luster because of missing English starts, but both squads have sufficient depth to ensure a compelling clash with playoff implications. Bath sit in second place on 47 points and look bolted-on for a home semi-final, but chasers Saracens could close the gap with a significant victory. Charlie Hodgson’s team currently sits on 39 points, but they have the most offensive firepower in the Premiership this season, and were the first team to 400 points scored. Bath’s front row depth has astounded so far this season, and scrums could be a major concern for Saracens, but the home team should have a marked advantage in the backline, where Bath is missing almost all of their established starters.
Wasps v. Harlequins
Though the match used to be a derby day encounter, things have moved north to Coventry for the first league clash between the teams since Wasps packed up. Danny Care will lead the attack for Quins, after being on the outside of the England camp following a rough fall and winter. A year ago, he looked like a certain starter for the World Cup. Now he is struggling to find his place in the extended player squad. Some even called for Joe Simpson, Wasps’ scrumhalf who played for the Saxons, to be included ahead of Care. The two perform excellent work at the breakdown, and it should be a treat to see them trade off sniping runs and quick penalties. Quins have muscled themselves back into the playoff race and sit only two points behind the fourth place Wasps, so the match has potential playoff implications amplifying its import. A good chaser to an excellent weekend of rugby, the Sunday clash showcases the best of the league.