Get ready for the return to domestic action with the review for round 19 of the Aviva Premiership.
Europe is over for another two weeks and the Premiership is once again underway. We preview round 19 of the Premiership. Injuries, signings and European disappointment will feature heavily during the final rounds of the 2017/18 season.
Before we get stuck in, here's a reminder of the results from round 18.
Sale vs Wasps: Friday 7:45pm
Seventh hosts third in Manchester this weekend, opening proceedings for the 19th round of the 2017/18 season. Sale Sharks come off the back of an emphatic 58-point victory over Worcester while Wasps, on the other hand, head to the AJ Bell following defeat at Welford Road a fortnight ago.
Mike Haley may be leaving Sale to cross the Irish Sea to Munster at the end of the season but seems to have had a weight lifted off his shoulders since his signing was announced. The former England Saxons fullback is back to his best terrorising defences, earning a well-deserved man of the match award for his efforts against Worcester last time out. Along with the fit-again AJ MacGinty at 10 and Faf de Klerk pulling the strings as convincingly as ever, Sharks look likely to finish their season with a flourish. Steve Diamond’s side are a different prospect at home to their poor away form and could easily finish the weekend with a bonus point victory.
Wasps will be buoyant with the return of their three biggest leaders; James Haskell and Joe Launchbury return from England duty in good form whilst Matt Mullan continued his return from long-term injury against Tigers in round 18. Elliot Daly also returns to the fold following the pleasantly surprising news yesterday that he would be available for selection, despite early reports of a six week recovery period. Hooker Tommy Taylor is also in line to make a return from injury and could bring much needed energy from the bench in his first Premiership appearance of the season.
It’s anyone's game on Friday and we could well see Sale slip into sixth place whilst Wasps edge further yet from a home semi-final.
Northampton Saints vs Saracens: Saturday 2pm
Saracens head to Franklin's Gardens on Saturday fresh from their Champions Cup exit at the hands of a convincing-looking Leinster side. The North Londoners are one of the best sides in England at responding to disappointment and will be harbouring frustration borne of both European and Six Nations failure.
The current Champions Cup title holders look set to be rejoined by a fit-again Billy Vunipola, who will be eager to get stuck in following three long-term injuries back-to-back. Alongside his older brother, Mako, and Jackson Wray, the Sarries pack will not be short on punching power.
Northampton’s latest Premiership outing saw them take a losing bonus point from a landmark game for Newcastle Falcons at St James’ Park. They may have levelled out their form to a more stable platform recently, but haven’t looked like troubling the top sides for some time.
It’s hard to see anything other than a convincing Saracens victory at the Gardens this weekend, but Saints will be desperate for payback after conceding three 50+ point losses at Sarries' hands so far this season.
Bath vs Leicester: Saturday 2pm
Our next fixture sees the return of The Clash at Twickenham, with Leicester and Bath once again doing battle at the home of English Rugby. Two teams with a rich tapestry in the years gone by, but a more recent record of mediocrity has left both sets of fans frustrated at their side's rugby staff and administration setups.
These issues aside, Leicester enjoyed a dramatic victory over local rivals Wasps in round 18 and despite losing both Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May to injury, will likely still be sprightly following their recent victory. The pairing of George Ford and Matt Toomua will once again reunite and could go some way to orchestrating a victory at HQ. Tigers' pack is once again fit and firing and looking mean enough to knock back a Bath pack chronically riddled with injuries.
The return of Rhys Preistland from a lengthy hamstring injury could prove influential in Bath's ambitions in East London this weekend but will rely on reliable go forward from the likes of Beno Obano, Charlie Ewels and Taulupe Faletau. Bath come off the back of two losses in a row to Exeter, one of which saw their hopes of early season silverware in the Anglo-Welsh Cup fade away at Kingsholm last weekend. The West Country outfit will however be boosted by the return of Springbok openside Francois Louw. No other member of Bath's squad seems to have such a positive effect on the side's performance and could go some way to dragging his side over the gain line.
This one could go down to the wire but it is Tigers who hold the current advantage, either side has the potential to step up to the plate or crumble under early seasons frustrations.
Worcester Warriors vs Newcastle Falcons: Saturday 3 pm
In recent years this matchup would be an annual relegation battle, with Worcester and Newcastle fighting desperately to avoid 'The Drop'. These days the Falcons hold themselves in the same conversation as Wasps and Saracens, holding a well-deserved fourth place in the table and looking likely to retain their spot in the playoffs come May.
With Dean Richards' Falcons in such fine fettle and the Warriors without some of their most influential players, Newcastle will likely further cement their playoff spot at Sixways this weekend.
With no Francois Hougaard, Donnacha O'Callaghan, Ryan Mills or Chris Pennell in the side last weekend, the Warriors suffered a demoralising defeat to Sale. Alan Solomons' men look to be facing an uphill battle devoid of their biggest stars.
Worcester must do their utmost to take away at least a losing bonus point this Saturday if they are to keep London Irish at bay. The Exiles are beginning to pick up speed and look determined to close the gap between relegation and retaining Premiership standing.
Harlequins vs London Irish: Saturday 3 pm
As we've just mentioned, Irish are beginning to find some late season form and will have all the motivation they need to steal a victory from a trip to The Stoop this weekend. They may have lost their Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy last week, but the arrival of Les Kiss and Declan Kidney seems to have had an immediate impact at the Exiles.
Both former Ireland coaches are in it for the long haul whether Irish are in the Premiership or Championship next season, but will have laser-like focus on doing their utmost to chase down Worcester during these final four rounds.
Harlequins have had a roller coaster of a season, rising to stunning heights at times only to fall to utter despair the following week. Quins seem to be very good at pulling out their best performances when there is nothing to play for and with no more European rugby for the season, no risk of relegation and slim chances of qualifying for the Champions Cup next season, this may well prove to be another stellar weekend for the Londoners.
As with The Clash, this fixture could be predicted with a flip of a coin.
Exeter Chiefs vs Gloucester Rugby: Sunday 3 pm
The final matchup of the weekend looks set to be the most entertaining, with table leaders Exeter taking on a resurgent Cherry and Whites side led by Johann Ackermann.
The Chiefs have the advantage of playing at home at the fortress that is Sandy Park and the return of their England stars. Gloucester on the other hand are off the back of a spirit raising quarter-final victory in Europe but will not have benefitted from the weeks rest that the majority of Exeter's first team have enjoyed.
Gloucester's uncertainty at fly-half could well be their downfall. With Billy Burns not trusted with kicking duties and Owen Williams starved of starts so far this season, the lack of an established firm hand on the tiller may well prove the difference in the two West Country sides.
Exeter should be firm favourites for Sunday's clash, but Gloucester now possess a steely attitude to go along with their attacking potential. It's advantage Chiefs at Sandy Park this weekend, but Gloucester simply can not be ruled out following some of their form so far this season.
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