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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Three –

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Rotherham Titans and Leeds Tykes bring up the rear as the only sides to have lost both their matches so far. Leicester and Saracens occupy third and fourth place as the other two unbeaten teams, while Northampton and Sale have, like Leeds and  Rotherham, yet to win. Last years champions, Wasps, are bracketed with last year’s runners-up-Gloucester, while Newcastle and London Irish, who spent most of the last campaign locked together at the bottom of the table, have also lost one and won one so far.

Preseason predictions that this would be the most even Premiership ever are bearing early fruit. Two draws already, and a series of unexpected results, have reinforced the feeling that the Premiership will still be wide open when the World Cup stars return at the beginning of December.

Friday

LEEDS TYKES (11) vs ROTHERHAM TITANS (12)

Something has got to give in the Yorkshire Derby. Neither side has won a match this campaign – Rotherham being thrashed at home by Harlequins last Saturday after a creditable opening day performance at Gloucester, Leeds conceding 44 points at home to Bath on day one and another 33 at Wasps last weekend.

Both sides are decimated by injury. Leeds lost scrum-half Clive Stuart-Smith on day one and his replacement Alan Dickens at the Causeway Stadium on Sunday, while prop Mike Shelley is also hors de combat. Coincidentally, Rotherham have been hit in the same areas. Scrum-half Jacob Rauluni and prop Colin Noon are likely to miss encounter with Leeds while American Luke Gross is due to join the United States’ World Cup squad.

Rotherham did score first in their 15-43 defeat by Harlequins, with No 8 Geraint Lewis grabbing his second try in as many Premiership games but, whereas their defence had coped well the previous a week with Gloucester’s more predictable lines of running, the Titans and were torn apart by Harlequins’ more expensive approach, allowing electric left wing Ugo Monye to run in a hat-trick and former Leeds star George Harder to score his first try for a new club.

Leeds were also briefly in touch at Wasps when Dan Scarbrough scored an early try, but were undone by quick-fire scores from Rob Howley and  Mark van Gisbergen, who ended up with a match wall of 23 points. The Tykes, such a difficult not to crack last season, particularly at Headingley, have now shipped more points than anybody else at this stage of the season.

But in Scarborough, and the former Bristol new boys David Rees and Phil Christophers, they have potent attacking weapons. Rotherham possess a doughty defence but Leeds should be too good for them.

LEICESTER TIGERS (3) vs NEWCASTLE FALCONS (7)

Both teams have played Saracens so far this season, Newcastle losing at home on day one, Leicester earning a draw at Vicarage Road last weekend. Both teams have also won once at home, the Tigers despatching London Irish 29-19, while Newcastle scrambled to an ugly 9-8 victory over Sale at Kingston Park on Sunday.

The Falcons were indebted to an extraordinary decision by Sale to go for a late tap penalty rather than an almost certain three points from a kick at goal, as well as to the boot of fullback Ben Gollings, who kicked two penalties after outside half David Walder had gone off injured.

Leicester left it even later, with Tim Stimpson, persistently linked with a move to French club Perpignan, slotting the injury-time conversion of a try by replacement flanker Will Skinner to bring the Tigers  level at Watford.

While Leicester are having to paper over the cracks left by the dozen or so players required for World Cup duty – seven of their players against Saracens were aged 22 or under- Newcastle are faced with injuries to key players who for a variety of reasons failed to make the plane to Australia. Walder, even more important to the Falcons in the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, Epi Taione and Mark Andrews all picked up injuries against Sale.

Newcastle lost 52-9 at Welford Road last season before claiming revenge by 24 points to 22 at Kingston Park in March. They last won at Leicester on their way to winning the Premiership in 1998. That was the Tigers last defeat at home for nearly five years. Although both Northampton and London Irish won at Welford Road of last season, don’t expectthe Falcons to emulate them just yet.

SALE SHARKS (9)  vs BATH (2)

Sale have yet to win this season, Bath have yet to lose. The Sharks opened their season and their tenure of Edgeley Park, with a 37-all extravaganza against Northampton, but then  slumped to a 9-8 defeat at Newcastle. Bath earned  maximum bonus points in a 44-32 win at Leeds, and followed that up with a much more workmanlike, but no less satisfying, 24-6 victory at home to Northampton.

Bath’s new signings, including coach Jon Connolly, have settled in with the lightning speed. Nine players, including four signings from neighbours Bristol, made their home debuts against Northampton, with  the newcomers to the tight five, props David Flatman and Duncan Bell and former Gloucester lock Rob Fidler, very much to the fore.

Sale have yet to get full value from their new recruits. Ace goalkicker Braam Van Straaten has not started a match, while new hooker Matt Cairns made one regrettable, and possibly match-turning, error of judgment against Newcastle. Scrum-half  Bryan Redpath at least proved his match fitness at Kingston Park, though Sale are unlikely to benefit in the short-term as Redpath is part of Scotland’s World Cup squad.

After saving themselves from relegation last season with a home win over Newcastle, Bath have now won three Premiership matches on the trot. Sale, by contrast, have now gone seven consecutive Premiership matches since their last victory, on March 25th. Despite finishing fourth last season, the Sharks lost four and drew one of their last five matches.

Sale did beat Bath at Heywood Road by 36 points to 18 in November, after losing the Recreation Ground encounter 24-18. They should notch up their first win of the season at Edgeley Park this weekend.

Saturday

GLOUCESTER (6) vs SARACENS (4)

Last year’s league winners did not play well in victory against Rotherham on the opening day of the season, and they didn’t play well in defeat at London Irish last Sunday. Saracens played better than expected to beat Newcastle at Kingston Park on day one, and not quite as well as expected to draw at home to Leicester last weekend.

Saracens appeared to have won that match when  Richard Haughton cashed in on a Morgan Williams break to score what looked like  the winning try with just moments to go. But Saracens’ defence, which had gone walkabout at Kingston Park to to let Newcastle back into the match the previous week, was again caught napping as Leicester levelled the match.

The frailties Gloucester had shown in their opening day 22-8 win over Rotherham- poor decision-making at halfback, an unacceptable error-count with ball in hand- resurfaced against the committed Exiles side at the Madejski Stadium. Though powerhouse No 8 Junior Paramore scored a try which Henry Paul converted before adding a penalty, the Cherry and Whites were overtaken in second half.

Until Andy Gomarsall returns from the World Cup, and until Duncan Macrae arrives from Australia Gloucester will be reliant on their fledgling halfbacks Simon Amor and Brad Davies, while a rookie fullback Rory Teague will continue to experience a sharp learning curve.

Saracens were unlucky to encounter Gloucester during their purple patch last Autumn, going down 44-14 at Kingsholm before succumbing 29-22 at Vicarage Road in February. The home team will be nowhere near as commanding this time out but will still be favourites to prevail in front of their own fans. Gloucester won all 11 Premiership matches at Kingsholm last season. They should win this one.

NEC HARLEQUINS (1) vs LONDON IRISH (8)

Harlequins have not topped the Premiership in living memory, yet after scoring 8 tries in resounding victories over Wasps and Rotherham they head Bath on points difference. The Irish lost badly at Welford Road against Leicester, and won comfortably at home against Gloucester.

Barry Everitt booted the Exiles to victory last weekend, after taking over the kicking duties and the outside half spot from Mark Mapletoft. His return, and the  resumption by the Irish of a swarming, hard-working defence suggest that the Irish, untroubled by World Cup calls, will resemble more the team that won the cup and qualified for Europe two seasons ago than the one that lost direction to finish ninth last time around.

Harlequins’ seventh place finish was actually their best for four seasons. That they achieved it while winning only once away from home throughout the campaign- coincidentally, at the Madejski Stadium- says much for their form at the Stoop, although even that included a 45-0 defeat by Sale in February. Their overall inconsistency was such that throughout the season they only managed two consecutive wins- against Newcastle and Bath in the autumn. After beating Wasps at the Stoop at the end of last season and again at the beginning of this, Quins have now put together a three match winning streak.

The undoubted star of of the Premiership so far the season has been wing Ugo Monye. He followed up his pair of and tries against Wasps with a hat-trick at Rotherham, and is in the process of building up a huge reputation.

London Irish lost 29-19 at the Stoop last September, before going on to lose 16-6 in Reading. Quins should make it three a row over their former tenants.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (10) vs LONDON WASPS (5)

Both these teams have missed their World Cup stars much more than they, or the pundits, might have expected. Northampton, without veteran halfbacks Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson, without the cutting edge provided by Ben Cohen and without the hard graft from front-runner Steve Thompson and Tom Smith, have yet to win in the Premiership. After an extravagant 37-all draw at Sale in their opening match, they looked short of power and short of ideas in a 24-6 defeat at Bath in round two.

Wasps, without Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley in the pack and without Stewart Abbott and Josh Lewsey to provide the cutting edge behind the scrum, dominated the first 30 minutes of their opening match against Harlequins, and then lost the plot to allow their local rivals the spoils. They were much better against Leeds last weekend, though it needed an interception try from Rob Howley to set them on their way against Leeds, with Mark van Gisbergen scoring 23 of their 33 points.

The Saints have lost their last two matches against Wasps-  16-9 in the Premiership proper, and 19-10 in the championship play-off- but they did beat the Londoners 34-20 the when they met at Franklin’s Gardens in October. This is their first match in front of their home fans this season and Saints will be looking to build on the four consecutive wins at home at the end of last season, and the eight from 11 matches in the Premiership campaign. They surely cannot play as poorly as they did at Bath, when they allowed the home forwards to muscle them out of the game. They should win, particularly if Andrew Blowers, so badly missed at The Recreation Ground, returns.

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