Last Word On Rugby, by Sam Pardey.
With the first two rounds of Champions Cup fixtures out the way, all eyes turn back to the Aviva Premiership. There are some tantalising fixtures for fans to feast their eyes on.
Northampton vs Gloucester
The weekend kicks off under the lights at Franklin Gardens on Friday when Gloucester head to the Midlands. Both teams have not enjoyed the prettiest of starts to the season. The Cherry and Whites have continued their trend of recent years, showing lots of promise but a lack of consistency. They do not lack quality, with the likes of Richard Hibbard, Matt Ksevic and Greig Laidlaw in the squad.
There is a mental softness about them though, as evidenced by them throwing away victories against Leicester and Exeter already. It’s a long-running problem – one that David Humphreys needs to fix urgently if they’re going to trouble the top six.
The Saints have experienced a disastrous start to the season, with just two wins from six in the Premiership. This was compounded by a 41-7 defeat to Castres in the Champions Cup last weekend. Things don’t seem to have clicked for Northampton this season and Jim Mallinder will be looking for a response. There is enough talent in the squad to be challenging and they’ll expect a victory this Friday to kick-start their season.
Harlequins vs Worcester
Harlequins will look to close the gap on the top four this Saturday as they meet Worcester at The Stoop. Quins have looked strong at home and a good result is important as we head towards the Autumn Internationals. International test windows are always difficult for the London-based side, and this will be no different, with a number of their first XV heading off to represent their countries.
The Warriors head South with one eye looking forward and one looking back. A good result could see them propel themselves to within touching distance of the top six. If they were to lose though, with Bristol getting a result against Sale, Worcester may worry about being dragged into a relegation dogfight. Worcester were victorious at The Stoop last season and will be delighted if they can repeat that result on Saturday.
Saracens vs Leicester
One of the most interesting fixtures of the weekends sees the Tigers visit league leaders Saracens on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers haven’t been at their best on the road: struggling to beat Newcastle and Gloucester, and losing to Sale. It doesn’t get any easier for them, as they visit the reigning champions. While they do have a lot of talent at their disposal, injuries may harm them. The long-term injury picked up by Matt Toomua – as well as Manu Tuilagi’s ongoing injury rut – may hurt them.
Saracens will go into the game without their first choice second row pairing, but will still fancy their chances. Coming off the back of consecutive Champions Cup wins, Sarries will look to continue their impressive start to the season.
It will be interesting to see how the new dimension Aaron Mauger has installed into the Tigers attacking-play fairs against the home side’s ‘Wolfpack’. A win for the away side would really shake things up at the top of the league!
Wasps vs Newcastle
Newcastle have been somewhat of a surprise package this season, sitting in sixth place after three wins and three defeats. Excluding a heavy defeat at The Rec, the Falcons have enjoyed an outstanding start to the Aviva Premiership. Five of their six games have been decided by a margin of five or less points, showing the ground they have made up. Many expected Newcastle to be facing a relegation battle with Bristol this season – that may still be the case later on – but they have looked hard to break down this year.
Coming into the game off the back of a strong victory against Grenoble, Newcastle will be confident going into the game. Regardless, they will be over the moon to take any points back with them this weekend.
The home side have really clicked this year. They look certain to be leading the challenge on Saracens come the end of the season. With a solid pack and a flowing, pacey style of play, Wasps have excited fans so far this season, and will look to continue that form this weekend.
With just one defeat (away at Saracens) so far this season, Wasps will hope to take all five points.
Bristol vs Sale
Bristol have struggled on their return to the Aviva Premiership, and this weekend brings a massive game. The home side will be desperate to get a result at Ashton Gate, or they may find the gap at the bottom getting ‘wider’. Shane Geraghty could be an inspired signing for them, if he scores some vital points – a la Andy Goode for the Falcons last season. If Bristol want to survive, Andy Robinson’s men will need to pick up points at home.
Sale have lacked consistency this season, which will worry Steve Diamond. Even at home; where they were impenetrable last season, they lost to Gloucester. Coming off the back of two Champions Cup defeats, Sale will want a good result against the league’s bottom side.
Sale need to be picking up five points at games like this, if they wish to make the top six this season.
Exeter vs Bath
Lastly, but certainly not least, we have a west-country derby. Bath travel down the M5 to face last season’s beaten finalists Exeter. The Chiefs look to have ‘stepped down a gear’ this season, which won’t have pleased Rob Baxter. Having already lost to Saracens and Wasps, this will be a big test for the south coast team. A win against top four rivals Bath would do them the world of good.
Bath look a revitalised side under Todd Blackadder. After a disastrous 2015/6 season, Blackadder has brought them back to the level their fans are used to. Once more the pack looks solid at both set-piece and in the loose. George Ford is dictating games from ten, and Semesi Rokoduguni is in exceptional form on the wing. This is sure to be an enthralling game at Sandy Park.
“Main Photo Credit”