Well this weeks Aviva Premiership has a lot to live up to. Lasts weekends European excitement bought us everything, from the free flowing scoring of the magnificent Tigers to the gritty but equally excellent Exeter and even the brutal but battered Northampton Saints. But this weekends belters certainly have the potential to show us what the Premiership has to offer.
Friday starts with a bang with Sale vs Exeter at the AJ Bell, now on paper this may seem one sided with the Aviva Premiership champions having much the stronger side on paper but if Sale are anything its a home field team. they rarely lose at home and have only lost once (narrowly to Newcastle) since may. Sale make 4 changes to their starting line up with captain Will Addison coming in for Mike Haley at full back, Byron McGuigan in for Josh Charnley and there’s all change in the back row with Neild and Moore making way for Jono Ross and Josh Strauss respectively. but interestingly, especially in the Curry household, Ben drops out of the squad for twin brother Tom Curry. These back row changes really alter the dynamic of the team with Strauss and Ross adding a huge ball carrying presence, Tom Curry will be the fetcher to balance the two big guys out, this in my opiniom is the biggest area of strength in the Sharks squad.
On to the chiefs, after last weekends heroics in Montpellier you could almost excuse the Exeter team of looking a bit tired, especially with the short turn around, but D.O.R Rob Baxter only makes 5 changes to the starting team just James Short coming in for Woodburn in the backs. There are more changes in the pack though with Carl Rimmer and England newcomer Harry Williams coming in to the front row, Ollie Atkins into lock and the explosive Sam Simmonds in for Julian Salvi. the only change here that will change any way of playing is Sam Simmonds taking Salvi’s spot, Simmonds is an absolute animal going forward, the most exciting prospect in the Chiefs squad, if the Chiefs secure enough ball the back row of Armand, Simmonds and Waldrom could really do a lot of damage.
This is a tough game to call, if Exeter get the possession I think will win comfortably but with that sale back row slowing down the possession I could also see a Sale upset. if I was betting, I’d go for a tight Exeter win away.
From a fine game Friday to three scintillating games Saturday and the first of those up for discussion is Harlequins vs Worcester at the Twickenham Stoop. from what we’ve seen so far this season I think many of the teams will be looking forward to playing the Warriors this year, with no league wins under their belt this season and only the one solitary bonus point, its easy to see why. There wasn’t even much solace in the Challenge Cup last week with a 15-8 loss to Connacht at the Raceground. Harlequins on the other hand seem to be in transition, life without Nick Evans was always going to be tough but Marcus Smith seems to have bridged the gap nicely. Quins have a nice balance of youth and experience but I don’t think its quite clicked yet.
This Saturday sees the impressive Marchant replaced by Alofa and all change in the pack with only Robshaw and Horwill keeping their places. The most noticeable absentee being prolific naughty boy Joe Marler who starts his three week ban for striking. From a Worcester point of view there are only four changes with Humphreys in on the wing, Tuafete’e in at hooker for Singleton, Lewis taking the place of the South African GJ Van Velze and captain and all round legend Donnacha O’Callaghan in at lock.
I cant see any other result but a win for Harlequins here and probably pretty easily.
Two teams with very different weekends last were Northampton and Wasps, Saints battled bravely against Champions Cupfinalists Clermont but away at the French juggernauts was always going to be a bridge too far for the saints.Wasps on the other hand were clinical against harlequins and put them to the sword with apparent ease. Wasps are struggling to keep up with expectations after last season but with the quality players at their disposal surely its only a matter of time before this squad ignites. Northampton on the other hand are very up and down, after the initial battering that Saracens gave them they had a solid resurgence with four straight wins on the bounce but having three straight losses have they got the confidence to beat an exciting Wasps team.
Wasps are sticking with a winning formula and only bringing in Thompson for the banned Nathan Hughes while the Saints make four changes to last weeks loss at Clermont with Tuala taking Harry Mallinder’s spot and Brookes and Gibson into the pack. the other change being positional seeing the magnificent Courtney Lawes moved from blindide to the more familiar second row.
Franklins Gardens will be bouncing Saturday but on recent form I’d go for another narrow win for Wasps.
Saturdays final game is Saracens and London Irish, the European Champions against the Premiership new boys. London Irish really did invest in their squad this summer in an effort to keep the Reading based club in the top flight. In fairness they look pretty good. Don’t get me wrong they wont be pushing for a top six spot but I cant see them slipping below Worcester. Although they’ve only won once they don’t seem a million miles away. polar opposites are Saracens, with two squads at their disposal that would push for honours and quality internationals all over the park they are the toughest of asks for any team in the world.
London Irish are really ringing the changes Saturday with 11 replacements from last weekends loss to Connacht, the more eye catching seeing James Marshall coming in at ten and the front row of World Cup winner Ben Franks, David Paice and the former Saracen Petrus Du Plessis. Saracens also see changes with them making 5 alterations to the starting team. Nick Tompkins comes in for Taylor, Spencer in for Wigglesworth, George and Koch into the front row and South African legend Schalk burger at flank.
This is the easiest pick of the weekend, I’d be amazed if Saracens didn’t win this convincingly.
Sundays first game brings a local derby. Bath vs Gloucester at the Rec is one of the oldest rivalries in rugby and if the rugby fails the fans will often provide enough entertainment. with similar starts to the season they both look like they will be mid table pushing for the Champions Cup spots. for the last couple of seasons the cherry and whites have been hit and miss, win one, lose one and this season is no different. if they could string a run of results together they could really do something and the key to any wins will be Jason Woodward, the Kiwi cum Englishman has looked magnificent this season and twinned with an in form Henry Trinder they could certainly do some damage but unfortunately for Gloucester the former Super Rugby player is out through injury.
Baths start has been much the same and with the loss of George Ford many people thought they would struggle in the ten position but Rhys Preistland has really stepped up to the mark to guide the team.
Bath seem to be trying to stick to a winning team with only giant wing Matt Banahan taking the spot of Welshman Aled Brew and Nathan Catt winning his place back at loosehead. Gloucester have brought back the big guns this weekend with Twelvetrees, Hibbard, Afoa, Slater and Ackermann back into the team. but there’s no doubt the absence of Jason Woodward will be a a big blow.
Probably the tightest of all the weekends game but I’m going to edge towards the home team.
The final game of this weekend takes the Tigers north to face an in form Newcastle at Kingston Park. the Falcons have been awesome this year and are seemingly a totally new side. Richards bought well this pre season with the likes of Flood, Mermoz and DTH Van Der Merwe, they really do have the cutting edge they might have missed in recent times.
Leicester, coming in on the back of a brilliant free scoring performance last week will be full of confidence. Armed with attacking talents such as Jonny May. Matt Toomua and Telusa Veianu this game will surely have a few tries in it.
Newcastle look to bolster the team with Goneva, Socino, Sinoti and Takalua adding a real try scoring edge with their return. Cooper, Wilson and captain Latu will bring leadership to the pack after their weeks rest. Matt Smith marks his return at centre with his 150th appearance for the tigers and will partner ex Falcon Matthew Tait who also returns to the starting team. The only other change for the Tigers see’s O’Connor into the back row.
Another tough one to pick here but I’ll go for home advantage. Falcons by three.