NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – The first match of 2014 in the Aviva Premiership will kick off tonight as the Saints take on the Harlequins at Franklin Gardens. Both sides enter the match in a great run of form, looking to maintain their positions in the top four. Around the league, it was an eventful holiday period, as the transfer period opened, accusations were made, and the teams settled in for the vital pre-Six Nations period. So, as we do every week, let’s get to your Aviva Premiership Preview:
“Silly Season” Begins
January 1 marked the beginning of the “silly season” as long rumored moves could finally be made official. Though major players such as Freddie Burns, Toby Flood, and Leigh Halfpenny remain unsure of their final destinations, they are widely believed to already have destinations in mind. This practice has led to Gloucester boss Nigel Davies launching a scathing denunciation of rugby’s transfer system, which only allows teams to open a dialogue with another side’s player after January 1 of the season in which the player is out of contract. Davies claimed, “I think we all understand what actually happens…if these things are going on then they have to be stopped.” The Cherry and Whites manager’s frustration is particularly understandable in the wake of the Burns saga, which threatens team unity during a difficult period for Gloucester, who have not lived up to expectations this season. An unnamed agent also sparked conversation when he divulged details of teams’ transfer policies. The agent stated, “the reality of [rugby’s current situation] is that everyone ignores what the law is, everyone does it, and I would be surprised if Gloucester acted any differently.” Though reform is not imminent, it would not be surprising if there was a continued increase in the emphasis on “fair practice” in light of the new money coming into the game, both in England and France. Though clubs and countries are trying their best to avoid truly seismic shifts before the end of the current World Cup cycle, several trends, including the exodus of Welsh players, has continued unchecked to the point that a crisis situation has been created. Rugby fans worldwide will be intrigued by any developments, which would provide a welcome example of international cooperation for the good of the sport.
Northampton will face Harlequins in the aforementioned match, which will be an early highlight of the weekend. The Saints will try to build upon their astonishing performance last weekend at Franklin Gardens, and continue to enjoy the comforts of home in the New Year… Harlequins also impressed in their victory over Exeter last weekend, ensuring that this match may have a major practical and psychological impact upon two teams that will likely be playing for much higher stakes in May… Sale will travel to Newcastle looking to rebound from a difficult defeat to Leicester last weekend, and though many teams have found it difficult to win in the North, the Sharks will likely take the points from a cagey affair… London Irish will try to take down Worcester in a battle between the league’s bottom two sides. Any attempt by the Warriors to begin a relegation fight back must begin on Saturday, as a bonus point victory would put them within touching distance of the Irish in eleventh. Any other season and the Warrior’s fate would have already been sealed, but the Irish only have two victories to their name, making this clash instrumental to their survival in the Premiership… In the other Saturday match-up, Saracens will travel to Kingsholm to face Gloucester, while Sunday will see Leicester and Bath resume their rivalry at Welford Road. Bath won the first match between the sides this year, and the Tigers will be eager to seek vengeance, though they will have to do so without Dan Bowden, who will be sidelined for eight to twelve weeks, adding to Leicester’s considerable injury woes this campaign… The final match of the weekend will be between London Wasps and Exeter at Adams Park, with the Chiefs travelling to London for the second consecutive week hoping for a better result this time around.
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