Can Rotherham break their duck? 18 points adrift of Saracens now, the Titans can surely not avoid relegation. But pride demands that they earn at least one win in the second half of the season. Whoever loses to them will severely damage their chances of qualifying for the Heineken Cup by finishing in the top six positions. With seven sides – from London Wasps in second to Newcastle in 8th – separated by only five points, places in the play-offs are equally up for grabs.
SALE SHARKS (5) vs NEC HARLEQUINS (6)
Sale go into this match on the back of a 31-3 Heineken Cup hammering at Biarritz last weekend. The previous week they had gained a narrow victory at home to the Cardiff Blues. The Sharks’ last match in the Zurich Premiership was a curious bad-tempered 9-3 defeat at London Irish, which leaves them at the halfway point of the season with a very symmetrical record of five wins, five defeats and a draw.
Harlequins thrashed Spanish team Cetransa El Salvador 63-3 at the Stoop last weekend to earn themselves a 94-21 aggregate victory in the first round of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup. They too lost their last match in the Premiership, going down 9-16 at home to Leeds. Quins have actually won one more match than Sale, but are a point behind the Northerners in the Premiership.
Sale won 30-21 at the Stoop at the end of October, with Matt Cairns, Steve Hanley and Mark CUeto scoring tries, and Braam van Straaten kicking fifteen points. The Sharks did the double over Quins last season, winning 45-0 at the Stoop and 20-16 at Heywood
Quins, whose tries in the October encounter were scored by Andy Reay and Simon Keogh, have lost their last four matches against the Sharks and have only won 3 of the last 13 Premiership encounters. Now Sale have learned how to win at their new home of Edgeley Park they should have little difficulty in extending their run of success
BATH (1) vs NEWCASTLE FALCONS (8)
Bath hammered the Italian side L’Aquila in the first round of the Parker Pen tournament to register an aggregate victory of 125-11. They won 13-12 at Leicester on their last outing in the Premiership, to reach the halfway stage of the competition with 10 victories from 11 matches and an 11-point advantage over London Wasps and London Irish at the top of the table.
The Falcons beat Valladolid at Kingston Park in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup for a 137-37 aggregate the first-round victory. Their last Premiership match ended in defeat-going down 20-23 at home to London Wasps. That was their sixth defeat of the season, but the fifth in which they registered a losing bonus point. As a result, the Falcons, although 8th in the table, are just five points behind second-placed Wasps.
Newcastle are the only team to beat Bath this season, edging home 19-17 when the sides met at Kingston Park in October. Dave Walder’s conversion of a Phil Dowson try for the Falcons proved the difference between the sides after Isaac Fea’unati touched down for Bath and Walder and Bath outside-half Olly Barkley kicked four penalties apiece.
Bath did the double over Newcastle last season, winning 24-12 at the Recreation Ground in May – a match they had to win to stay in the Premiership- and 24-20 at Kingston Park in November.
Bath have won 8 of the last 14 matches against the Falcons. Home advantage should ensure another victory for the Premiership leaders.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (4) vs LEICESTER TIGERS (10)
Northampton beat Agen 25-10 in the Heineken Cup with a hat-trick of tries from World Cup winner Ben Cohen to improve their chances of qualifying for the knockout stages. The previous week they had lost at Llanelli. Their last Zurich Premiership match ended in defeat as well, with Gloucester taking the spoils at Kingsholm by 28 points to 20. That was only the Saints’ fourth defeat of the campaign, in which they have scored more points, 320, than any other team.
Leicester beat Gwent Dragons 34-3 at Welford Road to get their Heineken Cup campaign backed on track. The previous week they had lost at Stade Francais, a ninth defeat in their last 13 matches in all competitions. Their last Premiership match ended in a 12-13 defeat at home to Bath. Tigers reach the halfway point in the Premiership season having, for the first time ever, lost more matches than they have won.
Northampton beat the Tigers 32-15 at Welford Road at the end of October, a second successive victory in Leicester. Bruce Reihana scored both the Saints’ tries with Shane Drahm kicking 22 points, while for Leicester Steve Booth kicked five penalties.
Leicester, however, won 16-3 at Franklin’s Gardens last season, and by 21 points to 11 the season before that. Though they have won 9 of the last 14 matches against their neighbours, the Tigers will not be confident of victory this time around.
ROTHERHAM TITANS (12) vs LONDON IRISH (3)
Rotherham’s woes in the Premiership were compounded by a difficult draw in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup. They lost at both matches to Narbonne to make an early exit from Europe. They’ve still not won a Premiership match. Their 29-10 defeat at Saracens at the end of November was their 11th straight defeat in the competition. Still to register a bonus point of any description, Rotherham are now 18 points adrift of Saracens at the foot of the table.
London Irish beat Montauban 36-24 at the Madejski Stadium in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup to record one of the narrowest aggregate victories in the first round. The Exiles inched through by just 62 points to 54 over the two legs. Their last Premiership match, against Sale Sharks, was also close. A 9- 3 victory was their seventh win of the season and took them into third place in the Premiership – level on points with London Wasps.
The Exiles were convincing winners, by 47-26, when the two sides met at the Madejski Stadium in October. Justin Bishop, Paul Sackey, Michael Horak (2) and Barry Everitt scored tries with the latter kicking seven points and Mark Mapletoft 15. John Benson and Anthony Elliott touched down for Rotherham with Jason Strange landing 16 points.
London Irish won their only other match at the Madejski Stadium by 54-11, but Rotherham triumphed by single point on the only occasion they met in Yorkshire. Although it is widely expected that the sweeping changes made by Rotherham at the top end of the club will bear fruit, it is probably too early to expect a return, especially against a side like the Irish who have scrapped their way to seven wins already this campaign and now occupy third place in the table.
LONDON WASPS (2) vs SARACENS (11)
Wasps beat Calvisano 52-33 in Italy last weekend to make it two wins from two in the Heineken Cup. The champions’ last Zurich Premiership match also ended in an away victory, as the London side edged through 23-20 against Newcastle at Kingston Park. That win, a seventh from 11 matches, took Wasps into second place at the halfway stage, 11 points behind leaders Bath.
Saracens beat Roma 62-5 in the second leg of their Parker Pen Challenge Cup tie, to register within a one 27-18 aggregate victory. After beating Rotherham Titans 29-10 in their last Premiership match, Saracens have now put together a run of three successive victories. That said, they’ve only won four matches in the Premiership all season, with only Rotherham below them in the table.
Wasps beat Saracens 42-3 at Vicarage Road earlier in season with Ian Clarke, Tom Voyce (2) Craig Dowd and Fraser Waters scoring tries and Mark van Gisbergen kicking 17 points. Andy Goode kicked one penalty for Saracens.
Last season Wasps beat Saracens 42-31 at Vicarage Road and 51-23 at Adams Park. They have won the last five matches against Saracens and nine of the last 13 games against the Watford-based side. Although Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley are required by England at Twickenham, Wasps should still be too powerful for Saracens.
LEEDS TYKES (9) vs GLOUCESTER (7)
After beating the Neath-Swansea Ospreys on their first ever outing in the Heineken Cup, Leeds came down to earth with a bump when defeated by Toulouse in France last weekend. The Tykes did, however, taste victory in their last Premiership match, a 16-9 win against Harlequins at the Stoop. Their fourth success of the campaign leaves the Tykes seven points behind eighth placed Newcastle.
Gloucester thrashed Bourgoin 49-13 at Kingsholm to record a second successive Heineken cup victory with maximum points. Last year’s league winners beat Northampton 28-20 in their last Premiership match to stay within striking distance of Wasps and London Irish.
Gloucester won 24-19 when these two met at Kingsholm at the end of October, with James Simpson-Daniel (2) and James Forrester scoring tries and Henry Paul kicking nine points. For the Tykes, Alan Dickens scored the one try and Duncan Hodge kicked four penalties and a conversion. Last season they shared the spoils; Leeds winning 30-23 at Headingley, Gloucester going through by 28 points to 10 at Kingsholm.
Gloucester won the other two Premiership matches they played against Leeds by more than 50 points. They lead series by four victories to one. After playing so well against Bourgoin last week, the Cherry and Whites will travel confidently to Yorkshire.
If they are to have any chance of retaining the league title, currently they are 16 points behind leaders Bath, they will need to win at Headingley. I think they will.