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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Eight

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Home defeats for Saracens and Leicester mean that the Yorkshire club is no further off the pace than it was this time last week. Back at the other end, a home win for Gloucester and away wins for Wasps and Northampton ensured that last season’s top three keep the pressure on the leaders, while home wins for London Irish and Newcastle allow them to keep in touch with the chasing pack.

However, the fixtures fall in such a way on the eighth consecutive week of Premiership action that the field could well be significantly  scattered.

Friday

LEEDS TYKES (9) vs NEC HARLEQUINS (6)

Leeds registered their fourth defeat of the season as they went down 24-19 against Gloucester at Kingsholm. Alan Dickens scored their only try in first-half injury time, with Duncan Hodge converting and adding four penalties. Harlequins lost 21-30 at home to Sale – a second successive defeat at home, and a third defeat in the last four matches. Simon Keogh and Andy Reay scored late tries for Quins, with Paul Burke kicking three penalties and Andy Dunne kicking a conversion.

Leeds have won three of their four Premiership meetings with Harlequins, and both of their fixtures at Headingley. Last season the Yorkshiremen won by a single point in Leeds after triumphing 33-23 at the Stoop in September, while their December 2001 victory was by 23 points to 18.

After losing their opening match at Headingley- Bath winning 44-32 on day one- Leeds have won three on the trot at home, against Rotherham, Saracens and Leicester. Quins won their first away match, a 43-15 success at Rotherham,  but have only been on the road once since then, losing 39-33 at Saracens. The Londoners only won once away from home last season.

They are unlikely to succeed at Leeds this weekend.

SALE SHARKS (7) vs LONDON IRISH(5)

The Sharks crushed Harlequins 30-21 at the Stoop, their third win of the season, all of them, surprisingly enough, away from home. Matt Cairns, Mark Cueto and Steve Hanley scored tries for Sale, with Braam van Straaten converting all three and adding three penalties.

London Irish had a convincing 47-26 home over hapless Rotherham to put themselves in credit for the campaign, with four wins and three defeats so far. Justin Bishop, Paul Sackey, Michael Horak and Barry Everitt secured a first try-scoring bonus point of the season for the Exiles, with Everitt kicking two conversions and a penalty and Mark Mapletoft landing three conversions, two penalties and a drop goal.

Sale did the double over the Irish last season – a 23-11 victory at the Madejski following a 36-14 success at Heywood Road – and they have only lost one of their last seven encounters. The last time the Exiles won in Manchester was a 28-13 triumph in September 2000. But Sale haven’t won a home match this season- a 37-all draw with Northampton on day one followed by reverses at the hands of Bath and Wasps – while London Irish have already recorded one famous victory on the road- downing Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in round four.

Sale, though, are bound to find their feet soon at their new Edgeley Park home and even though the Irish are also running into form, this could be the day.

Saturday

BATH (1) vs LEICESTER TIGERS (10)

After six straight wins this season, Bath finally surrendered their one hundred per cent record at Newcastle, going down 19-17 at Kingston Park. Isaac Fea’unati scored Bath’s try as the West Countrymen briefly enjoyed a second half lead, while four penalties from the prolific Olly Barkley secured the bonus point for finishing within seven points of the winners. 

Leicester slumped to a fourth straight defeat, and a second in a row at Welford Road, when neighbours Northampton piled on the agony in a 32-15 defeat. Steve Booth scored all the Tigers’points with five penalties.

Bath lost twice to Leicester last season- 15-8 at the Recreation Ground in March and 22-20 at Welford Road in September- and they actually have to go back eight matches, to April 1999, for their last victory over the Tigers.

This season, however, they won their first six matches, including home victories over Northampton, Rotherham and Saracens, before last week’s reverse at Newcastle. Leicester have not won away from home this season, after drawing their opening encounter at Saracens, before losing at both Gloucester and Leeds. The Tigers have now lost four matches in a row in slumping to an unheard-of tenth place in the table.

This could be number five.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (3) v GLOUCESTER (2)

The Saints showed no mercy to stricken neighbours Leicester as they enjoyed a second successive win at Welford Road, this time by the margin of 32 points to 15. Bruce Reihana scored both Saints’ tries, while veteran full-back Nick Beal added a drop goal and outside half Shane Drahm kicked both conversions as well as five penalties. Gloucester stretched their two-and-a-half year unbeaten home record  still further when they beat Leeds 24-19 at Kingsholm. Young guns James Simpson-Daniel, with two, and James Forrester scored tries while Henry Paul kicked 3 conversions and a penalty.

Gloucester did the double over Northampton last season- winning 16-13 at Franklin’s Gardens and 18-9 at Kingsholm- and in fact, have won three of their last four encounters with the Saints. Although they lost 58-21 at Franklin’s Gardens in April 2002, they have won on two of their last four visits to Northampton. This season, however, the Cherry and Whites’ have reverted to type on the road, with defeats at both London Irish and Newcastle against a solitary win at Harlequins.

Northampton have beaten both Newcastle and Wasps at home, with only a shock defeat at the hands of London Irish to blot their Franklin’s Gardens copybook. After winning at Leicester last week, confidence among the Saints should be high.

Victory over Gloucester will send it higher still. A home win.

Sunday

ROTHERHAM TITANS (12) vs SARACENS (11)

The Titans’ seventh successive defeat was a 26-47 reverse at London Irish. Jon Benson and Anthony Elliott scored early tries, both converted by Jason Strange, whose first three penalties kept Rotherham within a point of the Exiles at the break. A fourth Strange penalty was, however, the only second-half score for the Titans, whose defence has now conceded over 250 points in seven games.

Saracens slumped to a fourth defeat in five matches when Wasps blitzed them 42-3 at Vicarage Road. An Andy Goode penalty was all the Saracens had to show on a wretched afternoon in front of a home crowd of nearly 7,000.

Saracens are one of the very few Premiership teams to have lost at Rotherham, a 19-8 defeat in January 2001 reversing a 59-5 defeat at Vicarage Road on their only other meeting.

This season, however, the Titans have yet to register a single victory, or a single bonus point. In their three home matches to date, they have lost to Harlequins, Northampton and Sale, with the 28-14 defeat at the hands of the Lancastrians their best result so far. After winning 25-20 at Newcastle on day one, Saracens have lost three away matches on the trot- at Gloucester, Leeds and Bath.

After being docked two points for fielding an ineligible player, the Watford-based side are just eight points clear of Rotherham at the foot of the table, A win at Millmoor would ease any worries of their becoming involved, as they have been in each of the last two campaigns, in an end-of-season dogfight. I think they will be able to breathe a lot more easily this weekend. An away win.

LONDON WASPS (4) vs NEWCASTLE FALCONS (8)

Wasps made it three wins in a row, and a fourth victory of the season, when they eclipsed Saracens 42-3 in Watford.vIan Clarke, Tom Voyce (with two), Craig Dowd and Fraser Waters ensured maximum points, with Mark van Gisbergen kicking four conversions and three penalties. The Falcons picked up their third win of the campaign ending Bath’s winning run with a 19-17 win at Kingston Park. Phil Dowson scored the Falcons’ only try, with Dave Walder converting and adding four penalties.

Last season Wasps beat Newcastle 13-12 at the Causeway Stadium in March after going down 24-17 in September. They have lost just one of their last five home matches against the Falcons, while in their three matches in High Wycombe  this season, they have beaten Leeds and London Irish, while going down by a single point to Bath.

Newcastle, whose scalps this season include Gloucester, Bath and Sale, have lost all three of their away matches this season. This in all probability will be a fourth.

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