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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Eleven

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

We may not find all the answers this week, the last of the first half of matches in the Premiership, and the last before a two-week break for Heineken cup action, but we may get an inkling. 

The feel-good factor, and the chance to welcome back the world champions, should mean good for gate takings this weekend. Their presence should be  inspirational to those who have shouldered the burden during the first ten matches of the season. It may yet be the catalyst for change – although not at the bottom of the table where, sadly Rotherham appeared in the sinking without trace, and certainly not immediately at the top, where Bath continue to hold the rest at arm’s length.

But there are only five points between second-placed Northampton, eagerly awaiting the return of Matt Dawson, Ben Cohen, Steve Thompson and Paul Grayson, and Newcastle, ready to offer the freedom of the city to Jonny Wilkinson, who lie seventh.

In between, Wasps, keen to get Josh Lewsey, Stuart Abbott, Joe Worsley and inspirational Lawrence Dallaglio back into the fold, Sale, looking for a boost from World Cup try scorer Jason Robinson, and Harlequins, anxious to welcome back Will Greenwood and Jason Leonard, are all poised to make significant moves up the table.

GLOUCESTER (8) vs NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (2)

Gloucester’s director of rugby Nigel Melville is looking to parade his World Cup stars, Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman and Andy Gomarsall, and has also received a boost with the return from injury of No 8 Junior Paramore, lock Adam Eustace and full-back Thinus Delport. The news is timely, given that last Friday’s 20-12 defeat at Wasps was a third reverse in a row for last season’s runaway league winners.

Henry Paul kicked four penalties as the Cherry and Whites briefly took they lead in the second half, but they missed out on a bonus point when they conceded a last-gasp penalty.

Northampton had a big win at Headingley, beating Leeds Tykes 48-24. The Saints actually gave Leeds a 10-point start before scoring six tries of their own, through Shane Drahm, John Leslie, Mark Tucker, Jamie Brooks and Bruce Reihana (2), with Drahm adding five conversions and two penalties and Reihana chipping in with the last conversion. The Saints have now won four of their last five matches including, at the beginning of the month, a 30-17 win over Gloucester at Franklin’s Gardens.

Gloucester did the double over Northampton last season, and have won seven out of the last 13 fixtures against Saints. The Saints have won twice at Kingsholm in the last four seasons, and although they lost their last away match-at Harlequins on the eighth of November, Northampton have won twice and drawn once in five away fixtures this season.

After going the best part of two years without losing a home match, Gloucester have lost their last two games at Kingsholm – to Bath in the Premiership, and London Irish in the cup. Saint must fancy their chances, but it is almost inconceivable to think of Gloucester losing 3 in a row in front of their adoring Shed.

I go for a home win.

LEICESTER TIGERS (9) vs BATH (1)

Leicester have been more affected by World Cup cause than any other club. Logically, therefore they should see an almost immediate improvement to their fortunes, as the likes of Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Ben Kay, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry get back into the famous red green and white shirt. At least they return to a team that, after losing an unprecedented five matches in a row, has at last returned to winning ways with successive victories over Wasps and Rotherham. 

Ramiro Pez was the hero of the 27-17 win over the Premiership’s bottom club, scoring a try kicking two penalties and landing three conversions for a 17-point haul against his former team-mates. Dan Lyle and Austin Healey also touched down for the Tigers.

Bath recorded their 9th win in 10 matches this season when, despite having flanker Michael Lipman sent off, they beat Harlequins 18-10 at the Recreation Ground. The prolific Olly Barkley scored all Bath’s points, with six penalties.

Leicester have won three out of five matches at Welford Road this season, including their last game against Wasps  three weeks ago. Bath have won four times on the road this campaign, their only defeat in all Premiership matches  a 19-17 reverse at Newcastle.

When the two sides met at Bath at the beginning of November Bath cruised to a 31-17 victory. That brought to an end a run of eight successive victories for the Tigers,  who have still won 10 of their last 13 fixtures with Bath. Last season they won 22-20 at Welford Road, where they have tasted success in the last five fixtures against the West Country side.

Leicester were unbeaten at Welford Road for five years before Northampton beaten in the Premiership last season. Already this year that they have lost to Northampton and to Sale, who have also beaten them in front of the Roman times in the cup. Bath, confidence high after such an impressive  first half to the season, will hope for a change of fortune at Welford Road. But the tide may be turning at Leicester, and the return of the World Cup stars – either to play or simply to watch- should galvanise the Tigers.

Against the odds, I’m going for another home win.

NEC HARLEQUINS(6) vs LEEDS TYKES(10)

Harlequins lost for the fourth time in the last seven matches when going down 18-10 at Bath. Pat Sanderson scored their try, which Paul Burke converted, while Andy Dunne  dded a penalty.

Leeds lost for a seventh time this season when Northampton beat them 48-24 at Franklin’s Gardens. A Liam Botham try, converting by Gordon Ross, actually gave the Tykes an early lead, while Dan Hyde and Dan Scarbrough also weighed in with tries. Ross converted those as well, and kicked a penalty, but the Tykes were well beaten for a fourth successive time in the Premiership.

Harlequins won 30-16 when the two met at Headingley four weeks ago. Leeds did the double over Quins last season, winning 23-22 at Headingley and 33-23 at the Stoop. They have only played five times against each other in the Premiership, with Leeds still ahead by three wins to two.

Quins have won four of their five matches at the Stoop this season, while Leeds have lost all five matches they have played away from Headingley. The trend is almost certain to continue. 

Harlequins to win.

NEWCASTLE FALCONS (7) vs LONDON WASPS (3)

Newcastle stole a win at London Irish last weekend when outside half David Walder kicked a penalty and, shades of clubmate Jonny Wilkinson in Sydney, a drop goal in the last minute of time to secure a 19-14 win. In all Walder kicked three penalties as well as the conversion of Jamie Noon’s try in a see-saw match which saw the Falcons surrender a 10-6 half-time lead before grabbing a first away victory of the season.

Wasps beat Gloucester 20-12 at the Causeway Stadium to record their sixth win of the season. They have now won five of their last six Premiership fixtures, the only setback a 30 2-22 defeat at Leicester three weeks ago. Fraser Waters scored Wasps only try, with Mark van Gisbergen kicking four penalties and Alex King, coming off the bench for a first appearance of the season, dropping a  goal.

Wasps have won twice away from home this season, at Sale and at Saracens, while Newcastle have won four out of five matches at Kingston Park – a surprise of first-day defeat by Saracens the only blot on their copybook.

Wasps beat Newcastle 30-26 when these two met at the beginning of November, a second successive win in the series. Last season they won 13-12 at the Causeway Stadium after going down 24-17 at Kingston Park.

Wasps have won two of their last four matches in the North-East but, against a Newcastle side brimful of confidence following last week’s win at the Madejski Stadium, are unlikely become away with points this time.

Sunday

LONDON IRISH (4) vs SALE SHARKS (5)

After winning five out of six Premiership fixtures, the Exiles’ great run in the competition came to an end when they were edged out 19-15 at home to Newcastle at the weekend. Barry Everitt scored all the points for London Irish, with four penalties and drop goal.

Sale thrashed Saracens 33-3 – a fourth win in the last five matches. Lock Chris Jones scored two tries and winger Mark Cueto one, while Braam Van Straaten converted all three and added four penalties for good measure.

Sale’s away form has been better this season than their record at home. They have won  their last three games on the road, at Leicester, Rotherham and Harlequins, while it took until November 8 to gain their first win in front of their own fans.

Their last home defeat, at the end of October, was at the hands of London Irish, who edged home 28-26 at Edgeley Park. That was the Exiles’ first win in the last six matches in the series, in which Sale holds a comfortable lead.

London Irish have only played four matches at the Madejski Stadium this season, and last weekend’s reverse at the hands of Newcastle was their first home defeat. On each of their last two home games against Sale they have conceded 36 points, going down 36-14 last season and 36-32 the season before.

Sale are starting to hit form. Their 263 points in 10 matches (5 wins) has only been bettered by Wasps (269 points) and Northampton (300) , who have both won six matches. It should be another high-scoring match at the Madejski Stadium, which Sale should win.

SARACENS (11) vs ROTHERHAM TITANS (12)

Saracens slumped to a 3-33 defeat at Sale last weekend, a fifth reverse in their last six matches. Outside half Andy Goode scored the only points with a penalty.

Rotherham lost a 10th match in succession when they went down 17-27 at home to Leicester Tigers. The Titans actually took the lead with a Mike Umaga try, and kept in touch with an Anthony Elliott try, converted by fullback Jon Benson, and a penalty try, but conceded a late penalty to miss out on their first bonus point of the season.

Saracens have only won the one game at home this season, a 39-33 win against Harlequins at the beginning of October. In their last match at Vicarage Road, they lost 31-34 to London Irish.

The week before they had beaten Rotherham at Millmoor, a 25-12 victory the first success away from home since an opening day win at Newcastle.  Saracens are now 2-1 up in the short Premiership series between the two. On their only previous encounter at Vicarage Road, back in September 2000 , they won comfortably 59-5.

Victory this time should not be as emphatic, but Saracens should still win.

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