NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – The eighteenth round of the Aviva Premiership season kicks off Friday afternoon at the Recreation Ground, as Bath faces off against the newly resurgent Sale Sharks. All through the weekend, competitive matchups dot the fixture list, and European fans can rejoice in the knowledge that there will be a European competition next season. Truly, it’s a great weekend to be a rugby fan, and as always, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with a weekend preview.
Northampton Seeks Vengeance
Last season at around this time, the Tigers waltzed into Franklin Gardens and demolished the Saints, delivering a battering that would be remembered for years to come. This year, the Saints spent much of the campaign in the ascendancy, as big money signings such as George North slotted into the side and established veterans like Dylan Hartley performed above expectations. However, Northampton has hit a bit of a rough patch recently, losing to Sale and confronted by the reality that their England stars are exhausted at the end of a lengthy campaign. In contrast, the Tigers have rounded into form, collecting the full five points from each of their past two matches. To compound worries, Samu Manoa will be missing from the heart of the Saints’ pack, on international duty as the USA tries to wrap up World Cup qualification in Atlanta. A month ago, Northampton would have been favored by a try or more. Now, it’s a true toss-up, and one of the marquee fixtures of the season will hopefully live up to the billing.
Bath Looks to Keep Pace
Bath management made headlines this week for suggesting that new signing Sam Burgess will join the team in the pack, rather than the centers, as the RFU would prefer. The West Country outfit’s boldness was enabled because they stumped up the entire 280,000 pound transfer fee without help from the governing board, giving the team full control of the player. More immediate concerns face the team this weekend, and Danny Cipriani will hope to make ground on the playoff places. Currently, the Sharks are seven points behind the pace, but a maximum return would put them right back in the hunt (no pun intended). The clash between George Ford and Cipriani should prove hugely entertaining, and not leave much margin of error at the breakdown. Any penalties in the opposition half will be turned into points, and neither side can afford a slip-up at this stage of the season.
Best of the Rest
Exeter face off against Gloucester at Sandy Park, trying to get their Premiership campaign back on track following their demolition last week at Welford Road. Gloucester will enter on a high note, hoping to gain some momentum ahead of next season’s arrivals. Though the Cherry and Whites will have an almost completely retrofitted outfit before next season, for now, they look like what they are- a tenth place side. Harlequins will be playing a London derby against the London Irish, who will try to maximize James O’Conner’s talents while the fullback still plies his trade in England. Connor O’Shea took a beating in the media for resting his England stars, but they will return to the lineup as the Quins attempt to hang onto a European qualifying place. London Wasps and Saracens clash at Adams Park, an encounter that should not trouble the table-topping Sarries outfit. The Wasps have dearly missed their attacking flair this season, but Joe Launchbury gives their pack a fighting chance.