Worcester vs Harlequins
Amid the chaos that is the mid-table in the Gallagher Premiership, a bonus-point victory for Worcester (currently ninth) at the weekend could see them leapfrog Harlequins into fifth. After a tricky start to the season, the Warriors have been resurgent of late, demolishing Bristol at home before beating Stade Français in Paris during the European break, though their progress was stalled by defeat to Bath last weekend.
Facing a Harlequins side who traditionally struggle during international periods, Worcester will be relishing the opportunity to revitalise their mid-table hopes.
It won’t come easy, as Paul Gustard has shown promising signs in his early days as Harlequins’ Head of Rugby, and it looks as if he’s managed to build the backbone that the South-West Londoners lacked for so long, which is reflected in their standing – only one point off the playoffs.
Newcastle vs Bath
Had Bath not avoided the banana skin of a home defeat at Worcester’s hands last weekend, their clash against Newcastle would be a wholly different proposition. As it happens, Todd Blackadder’s men have ended a seven-game losing streak and can cast their eyes up the league table and see Wasps well within their reach, sitting just two points ahead in fourth place.
Aside from the loss of Mark Wilson, who has excelled with England, Newcastle will be relying upon new signing John Hardie to adapt quickly to Premiership life and spur their charge into the mid-table places.
This is a brilliant opportunity for Newcastle to build upon the sparkling European form that went missing last weekend in a defeat to Harlequins. This is a surely a vital fixture given the risk of daylight appearing between themselves at the bottom of the table and eleventh placed Sale Sharks.
Exeter Chiefs vs Gloucester
With two in-form, high-flying sides clashing at Sandy Park this weekend, one can only rue the plethora of talent that is missing from both teams.
Gloucester outclassed Leicester last weekend with Danny Cipriani masterminding a dominant victory, and the Cherry and Whites look to have finally reached a point at which they can be true title contenders. Johan Ackermann’s men have a point to prove after their trashing at the hands of Saracens in September, and will be looking to demonstrate their credentials on Saturday.
Exeter avoided defeat in Bristol by the skin of their teeth last week with a last-gasp penalty try, and with Saracens unlikely to drop points any time soon, the battle for first place is one where neither team can afford to lose a game.
Sale Sharks vs Northampton Saints
Presumably frightened by the threat of relegation that loomed overhead only weeks ago, Sale used the break in Premiership action to replenish their squad, bringing in South African siblings Rob and Jean-Luc du Preez.
Newly instilled fly-half, Rob, was instrumental against Saracens last weekend, kicking 20 points as the Sharks were denied victory by a late Joel Kpoku try following a remarkable Sarries comeback.
Northampton Saints offer a different challenge this weekend, with the South African looking to help guide his new team up the table and away from the dreaded relegation battle.
Despite the league table’s initial suggestions, with only three wins from seven, Northampton have looked promising this season as they develop under new Director of Rugby Chris Boyd. Last round’s impressive victory over Wasps was steered by three young guns; James Grayson, Fraser Dingwall and George Furbank. With Ollie Sleightholme racing in for a try just 15 seconds into his Premiership debut, the future looks bright at Franklin’s Gardens.
Wasps vs Bristol Bears
After last weekend’s disappointing performance in Northampton, Wasps need to recover their form if they are to withhold the furious challenges of numerous mid-table teams. Against Bristol, they have the perfect opportunity to do so.
Bristol were unfortunate to lose to last season’s finalists, on Sunday, only falling behind in the final play. But the Premiership is a brutal league and the Bears still seem to be struggling to adapt to its intensity.
It’ll be interesting to see if Pat Lam adapts his game plan for this fixture. Bristol’s method of attacking from anywhere is well matched by Wasps’ free-flowing rugby, and in a tactical stalemate there will only be one winner with the quality of player Dai Young has at his disposal.
Leicester Tigers vs Saracens
With traditional powerhouses Leicester looking to arrest their decline against an unbeaten Saracens side, this weekend’s clash at Welford Road looks to be the pick of the round.
Under the interim leadership of Geordan Murphy, Leicester’s form has been tumultuous, but they will eye this game as an opportunity to pick up their fortunes and seize a notable scalp against the dominant force in European rugby over the past few years.
Along with Exeter, Saracens have dominated the Premiership this season, brushing aside any competitors with ease, but have seen their squad stripped by international call-ups and injuries, turning to retired wing Chris Wyles to restock their backline against Sale last week. The cauldron of Welford Road could be a nervy proposition for Mark McCall’s men after coming face to face with defeat last weekend, escaping its clutches via the sizable frame of Kpoku.