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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Four

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

At the other end, Bath and Harlequins hang on to their 100 per cent record – but only just – while defeat for Saracens at Gloucester means that Leicester are now the only other unbeaten team.Gloucester’s convincing victory at Kingsholm puts them ahead of the Tigers on points difference, while Northampton, in fifth place, head a list of seven sides separated by just two points.

LEICESTER TIGERS (4) vs SALE SHARKS (11)

Leicester beat Newcastle last week – a rare flirtation with Friday rugby beginning horrendously as the Falcons rattled up a 15 point lead, and ending serenely with a 28-21 victory. Outside half Ramiro Pez scored a crucial try in first-half injury-time, while rookie wing John Holtby and James Hamilton touched down in the second half, with Perpignan-bound Tim Stimpson adding the other points.

Sale lost 14-9 at home to Bath – making it ten matches and more than six months since they last lwon in the Premiership. At least South African goalkicker Braam Van Straaten was available for the first time for the Sharks, although his return of three successful kicks from 8 was well below his usual standard.

Leicester beat Sale 33-20 at Welford Road in April to gain revenge for a 29-16 defeat at Heywood Road in September. The Tigers have won nine of 12 Premiership encounters with the Sharks, with just one draw, a 17-all affair in 2000. Although, they surrendered a five year unbeaten record at Welford Road last season,they have won  both their matches in front of their own fans this season. With Sale suffering from a poor start, and the absence of Jason Robinson and Charlie Hodgson in particular, Leicester should win again.

ROTHERHAM TITANS (12) vs NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (5)

Rotherham continued their losing ways in the Premiership last weekend – a third defeat in three matches since their return to the top flight ending in a 23-13 reverse at Leeds. Jon Benson registered a late consolation try for the Titans, for whom Phil Jones kicked eight points.

Northampton beat London Wasps 27-17 at Franklin’s Gardens – the Saints’ first home match of the season and, after a draw at Sale and a defeat at Bath, their first win. Outside half Shane Drahm was again the Saints’ hero, his 17-point haul comprising five penalties and a conversion. Bruce Reihana and new wing Jon Clarke scored tries.

These two sides have only met twice in the Premiership, with Northampton winning both times. They were 32-19 winners at Rotherham in September 2000, before registering a resounding 42-0 win at Franklin’s Gardens. Although the Saints have not been of their best this season and, after a draw at Sale and a defeat at Bath, have yet to win on the road, they should break their duck against a team that has looked out of its depth in the Premiership so far.

Sunday

LONDON IRISH (9) VS LEEDS TYKES (10)

The Exiles lost 10-15 at the Stoop against NEC Harlequins last weekend, to continue an up-and-down season which has seen them lose and Leicester on day one and win against Gloucester at the Madejski Stadium. Ed Thrower scored the Exiles’ try, with Barry Everitt kicking their points.

Leeds secured their first win of the season by beating Rotherham 23-13 in front of a disappointing crowd of less than 5,000 at Headingley. Liam Botham scored his first try since joining the Tykes from Newcastle, while South African Ryan Walker and Welshman Matt Cardey also touchdown for the first time. Former Scotland outside half Duncan Hodge kicked two penalties and a conversion.

Leeds were one of the few teams to win at the Madejski Stadium last year, triumphing 26-14 in April, to complete the double. Their 41-16 win at Headingley in September was a first victory in three matches against the Exiles. Neither side has begun this campaign particularly well, and with two defeats apiece from three matches, they possess almost identical records. But while Leeds are have shipped 90 points, more than anyone else in division, the Exiles have conceded just 54 – only the top three teams, Harlequins, Bath and Gloucester have better defences thus far. Although neither of their goalkickers, Mark Mapletoft and Barry Everitt, have been on their best form so far, home advantage should count for the Irish.

LONDON WASPS (8) VS BATH (2)

Wasps squandered a ten -point lead against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, to go down 27-17 – a second defeat of the season made even more unpalatable ride by the way they let a bonus point slip in injury time, as rookie Saints winger Jon Clarke nipped in for a try.

Bath kept their one hundred per cent record with a vital 13-9 away win at Sale – their second in two matches on the road this season. Former Bristol wing Brendon Daniel scored their try – after a telling intervention from former England full-back Matt Perry – while Olly Barkley kicked the points that mattered.

Wasps have won their last three home matches against Bath, although they have only won five of their last 12 Premiership meetings. Last year they triumphed 36-17 out of the Causeway Stadium in April after snatching a 27-all draw with an Alex King drop goal in injury time at the recreation ground last September. Above that you have to go back to March 2001 for the last win over Wasps, and to August 2000 before their last away win.

Nevertheless confidence is high at Bath, after three wins from three matches, especially as two of those have come away from home. Champions Wasps were knocked off their stride in the opening match against Harlequins, and although recovering to beat Leeds on their only appearance so far at the Causeway Stadium, disappointed again at Northampton last time around. They should, however, win this match.

NEWCASTLE FALCONS (6) VS  GLOUCESTER (3)

Newcastle were another team to let slip a big lead away from home last week. They were leading Leicester by 15 points at the end of the first half at Welford, with tries from Warren Britz and Michael Stephenson at the penalty from Ben Gollings, but a try by outside half Ramiro Pez just before the interval turned things around for the Tigers. With Mark Andrews and Hugh Vyvyan sent to the sin-bin, the Falcons lost their way. In the end, they needed a third penalty from Gollings to salvage a bonus point.

Gloucester shrugged off their indifferent early season form to register a convincing win over Saracens at Kingsholm. They scored four tries, through fullback John Goodridge (2) James Simpson-Daniel and James Forrester, to register of their first try-scoring bonus point of the season.

The Falcons lost 22-19 to Gloucester at Kingston Park last season and by the even narrower margin of 25 points to 23 at Kingsholm in April. Although Gloucester have won the last three fixtures between the two sides, and seven out of the last 10, the series as a whole is reasonably evenly balanced at 7-5 in Gloucester’s favour.

Newcastle have already lost once at home this season – in  their opening match against Saracens – while victory against Sale was by the narrowest of margins, 9-8. Gloucester have won twice at home but were well beaten on their only away trip this season- although they only went down 16-10 at London Irish. Last weekend, however, they were on top form at home to Saracens, while Newcastle let slip a big lead at Leicester. The force should be with the Cherry Whites this weekend, but only if they carry on from where they left off last weekend. SARACENS (7) VS NEC HARLEQUINS (1)

Saracens lost the first time this season when they were swept away by Gloucester at Kingsholm, going down by 30 points to 7. New Zealander international Taine Randell scored their try, with Andy Goode converting, but with Kris Chesney and Ryan Peacey collecting yellow cards, it was a frustrating afternoon all round for the Watford-based side.

Harlequins made it three wins from 3 with a hardfought 50-10 victory over London Irish at the Stoop. Paul Burke, on standby for Ireland's World Cup squad, kicked four difficult penalties and Josh Taumalolo landed a drop goal on his debut to seal the win and keep the Quins at the top of the table.

The last ten fixtures between these two sides have been high-scoring affairs, with an average of 60 points a match and only won lopsided result – a 43-6 win for Harlequins at the Stoop in November 2001.

Three consecutive wins this season have seen Harlequins to the top of the table, while Saracens, having started with a win at Newcastle, have gradually gone backwards, with a draw at home to Leicester followed by a big defeat at Gloucester. Harlequins have won their only away match this season, at Rotherham, but their away record in recent seasons is so dire that it would be foolish to predict anything but a home win.

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