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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Six

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Bath are still out on of their own at the top, with Harlequins keeping up the pressure just behind them. Rotherham are even more isolated at the wrong end and even further off the pace. The presence of four Heineken cup sides in the bottom half of the table indicates just how difficult those clubs are finding it to cope with the absence of their World Cup stars.

England’s call up of Bath scrum-half Martyn Wood suggests that Clive Woodward, however inadvertently from a distance of 12,000 miles, might be about to adjust the handicap.

NEC HARLEQUINS (2) vs GLOUCESTER (3)

Harlequins recorded a fourth win in five matches when they beat Newcastle 18-11 at the Stoop last weekend. Former Ireland outside half Paul Burke kicked six penalties to secure the victory, although Quins, by all accounts, hardly ever looked like scoring a try.

Gloucester also won at home, recording a hard-earned 24-3 victory over Leicester. Marcel Garvey and Robert Todd scored their tries with Henry Paul weighing in with one conversion and four penalties.

Harlequins have now won four of their five matches this season-their only reverse a narrow defeat at Saracens. They have triumphed in all three matches at the Stoop this season, against London Wasps on day one, and against London Irish as well as Newcastle. Their supporters, who regularly swell home attendances to a capacity 8,000, are beginning to get used to victory.

Gloucester have lost both their away matches this season, at London Irish and at Newcastle, Although they have won on three out of their last four visits to the Stoop, and although they head a 12 match series by 7 wins to 5, they will travel this weekend with some trepidation. Harlequins to win.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (5) vs NEWCASTLE FALCONS (6)

Northampton slumped to an unexpected 24-30 home defeat at the hands of London Irish last weekend, with Shane Drahm and Mark Robinson scoring tries, and Drahm landing one conversion and four penalties.

Newcastle never recovered from the 66th minute dismissal of veteran Springbok lock Mark Andrews for stamping at Harlequins and stumbled to their second away defeat of the season. Former Harlequins player Ben Gollings scored all their points, with a try and two penalties.

Northampton’s season has been up and down. After sharing an exhilarating 37-all draw at Sale on day one, the Saints were abject at Bath, recovered to beat Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens and Rotherham at Millmoor, only to fall badly on their return to Northampton, against the Irish.

Newcastle have actually lost one more match than the Saints, although they are currently only a point and a place behind them in the table.  As well as throwing away winning positions at home to Saracens on day one and at Leicester a fortnight later, the Falcons have recorded a scrappy home win against Sale and be much more impressive one at Kingston Park against last season’s League winners Gloucester.

The Falcons are yet to win on the road this season and they have not won at Franklin’s Gardens on any of their last five visits. Last season they lost 31-13 in Northampton before going on to win 22-20 at Kingston Park. Overall they are five wins to seven behind over the last twelve matches. That gap should be widened this weekend.

ROTHERHAM TITANS (12) vs SALE SHARKS (10)

Rotherham have yet to register any points in the Premiership, after stumbling to a fifth successive defeat. A penalty from Jason Strange was scant consolation in a 47-3 mauling at the hands of Premiership leaders Bath.

Sale went down 33-37 at home to London Wasps. They’ve now played three times at their new home of at Edgeley Park and have yet to win. Hooker Matt Cairns, with two, and Australian centre Graham Bond scored tries, all converted by Braam Van Straaten, who also added a penalty.

Rotherham have played just two matches at Millmoor, but have conceded over 40 points on each occasion.  Harlequins beat them 43-15 in round two, while Northampton triumphed by 42 points to 13 a fortnight later. The Titans have now leaked 177 points in their five matches.

While Rotherham have yet to register a bonus point of any description, Sale have managed four. After a high-scoring draw on day one against Northampton, the Sharks have lost narrowly at Newcastle and at home to Bath and Wasps, while enjoying an unexpected success at Leicester.

These two sides have only played each other twice in the Premiership, Sale winning 39-13 at Clifton Lane in March 2001 and 45-12 at Heywood Road the previous December. They should complete the hat-trick this weekend

Sunday

BATH (1) vs SARACENS (11)

Bath scored five tries in a Recreation Ground romp against Rotherham. Former Bristol centre Andy Higgins bagged two of them with forwards Andy Beattie and Matt Stevens also getting a in on the act, while centre Olly Barkley scored a try, and kicked five conversions and four penalties for a match haul of 27 points. The former England international now has 81 points from his first five matches.

Saracens staged a remarkable fight back to draw level at Headingley against Leeds, only to lose an extraordinary match 41-31. Thomas Castaignede, Ben Johnston and Andy Goode scored their tries, with the former Leicester outside half adding two conversions and four penalties.

Bath are now only two wins short of last season’s 22-match total and already they have secured more try scoring bonus points. Last season, they scored fewer points than anyone else in the Premiership, managing just 385 in 22 matches.  Already this season, after just five outings, they have scored 149, seven more than their closest rivals Harlequins. Bath have only played twice at the Recreation Ground so far this season, beating Northampton 24-6 in round two before swatting Rotherham aside last weekend.

Saracens have snatched victory at Newcastle, and thrown it away at Leeds. They have drawn at home to Leicester and been crushed at Gloucester, before becoming the only side to beat Harlequins. To make matters even more frustrating, they have also had two points deducted for fielding an ineligible player. As a result, that they go into this match second from bottom in the Premiership.

Last season they lost 30-9 to Bath at The Recreation Ground after winning 28-3 at Vicarage Road in September, and they have won eight of last 12 Premiership encounters. That said, Bath are riding a wave of confidence at the moment and should extend their winning run to 6.

LONDON WASPS (7)  vs LONDON IRISH (4)

London Wasps were indebted to a hat-trick of tries from centre Fraser Waters in their 37-33 win at Sale. Wing John Rudd also touched down, to clinch the bonus point, with Mark van Gisbergen converting all four tries and kicking three penalties for good measure.

The Exiles secured a totally unexpected 30-24 victory over Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, with former England outside half from Mark Mapletoft scoring 17 points from two penalties , three conversions and a try. Paul Sackey and Justin Bishop scored the other tries with Barry Everitt landing a late penalty.

The Premiership champions have yet to hit their stride this season. After throwing away victory at Harlequins in their opening match, they showed some sort of form in beating Leeds at the Causeway Stadium, but successive losses to Northampton and Bath-by a single point- demonstrated their fragility in the absence of that World Cup stars.

The Exiles have not lost a single player to the World Cup, and as result have steadily grown in confidence. After losing at Leicester on day one, and at Harlequins a fortnight later, the Exiles picked up two valuable home wins, against Gloucester and Leeds, before snatching victory at Northampton last weekend.

Although Wasps did the double over the Irish last season-winning 35-11 at the Causeway Stadium in February, and 31-21 at the Madejski in September- the spoils in the last 12 fixtures between the two sides have been evenly shared. Home advantage short edge Wasps ahead this weekend.

LEEDS TYKES (9) vs LEICESTER TIGERS (8)

The Tykes landed their second win of the season with a thrilling 41-31 victory at Headingley against Saracens. They secured their first try bonus point of the season in the process, with touchdowns coming from Rob Rawlinson, Phil Christophers, Dan Hyde, Duncan Hodge and Dan Scarbrough (2). Between them, kickers Hodge and Tim Walsh managed only one conversion from six attempts, although they did share three penalties.

Leicester slumped again, going down 24-3 at Gloucester, for a second successive defeat. Tim Stimpson managed their only points with a penalty, as the Tigers dropped to eighth in the table.

After last season’s extraordinary campaign, which saw the Tykes rise from bottom of the Premiership to a very comfortable fourth place and Heineken cup qualification, Leeds have been disappointing this season.  After losing their opening fixture at home to Bath, the Tykes have also lost at Wasps and at London Irish, while gaining a home win over Rotherham before hitting some sort of form against Saracens.

Leicester, who have surrendered more players to the World Cup than any other Premiership side, began the season with two wins and a draw, but have now lost two matches on the trot. The deduction of a point for fielding an ineligible player has sent the Tigers even further into the lower reaches of the Premiership. As far as they are concerned, of the return of their international stars cannot come soon enough.

The Tigers beat the Tykes by a single point at Welford Road last season, after losing 26-13 at Headingley in August. In fact, Leicester have never won a Premiership fixture in Leeds.  On their only other visit, in Nov 2001,  they were beaten 37-16. At the time, that was regarded as a real upset. If the Tykes were to win this weekend, as I suspect they will, it would hardly raise an eyebrow.

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