Friday, 13 April 2012
A step closer to the Aviva Premiership Playoffs and another absorbing and potentailly dramatic weekend awaits. Northampton Saints at home to Leicester Tigers has to be the game of the round and after the sheer physicality and ill tempered nature of the three previous encounters since May of last year, "Rocky 4" could be an apt description of Saturday's match up.
Jim Mallinder, the Saints Director of Rugby has alluded this week to the different approach to the game between his Leicester counterpart, Richard Cockerill and himself with Mallinder indicating:
"I don't really want to say [what] the differences [are]. The outside world can see the differences,"
Mallinder was clearly angered when Cockerill described the incident between Callum Clark and Rob Hawkins in the LV= Final as "a pretty poor act" and "really out of order" before the verdict was passed on the nature of Clark's suspension.
With so much at stake it will be vitally important for both sides that a greater discipline is shown this time round. Both clubs have enjoyed the luxury of a two week build up after their comfortable victories in their respective round 19 matches. As I predicted two weeks ago Leicester were dominant against Worcester and secured the vital bonus point. I could not have been further off beam with my suggestion that Northampton Saints would struggle at Bath. A fairly woeful display by the home team enabled Northampton to secure an away win at a canter.
My prediction two weeks ago was for a Leicester victory at Franklin Gardens with the away team denying the Saints the losing bonus point. I still think that a Tigers win is on the cards but within a losing bonus point margin.
Ben Youngs returns after his one match suspension and Horacio Agulla, George Skivington and Geoff Parling are included after missing the Worcester fixture. Dan Cole starts ahead of Martin Castrogiovanni at tight head and will face Soane Tonga'uiha in what promises to be a fascinating contest. The 30 year old Tongan who is in his testimonial year is under no illusion of the challenge at scrum time
"Leicester are definitely the hardest challenge there is when it comes to scrummaging. It is definitely one of the toughest challenges you can face but we have done alright in the past few years against them." commented Tonga'uiha.
Saracens journey down the M4 to face London Irish will be a good test of their boucebackability after two defeats. The party certainly did not go to plan at Wembley against a revitalised Harlequins and at times last week they were well and truly pummelled by Clermont. In both games their lack of attacking potency was highlighted and they face a potentially difficult time at the Madjeski Stadium. There is an end of era feel about London Irish at the moment with major changes afoot and with very little to play for apart from pride and a sense that the coaches and a good number of players will want to leave in style. Alex Corbisiero at the age of 23 will become the youngest player in the professional era to captain the Exiles when he leads his side out against a Saracens side which shows four changes from the Heineken Cup clash last week.
It has been an interesting couple of weeks for Harlequins with a stunning all round performance against Saracens slightly undone by relatively heavy loss away against Toulon in the Amlin Challenge. They return to just about full strength against Wasps although Nick Evans still remains on the injury list with Rory Clegg once again deputising. They will surely be aiming for a bonus point win against their under siege rivals who have Tom Varndell returning after a three month lay-off to join Christian Wade and Richard Haughton in a pacy back three.
Predictions for the next three matches and final placings
Harlequins - Now 66 points. Finish with 76 points
Wasps Home - Bonus point Win
Leicester Tigers Home - Bonus Point Loss
Sale Away - Win
Saracens - Now 60 points Finish with 72 points
London Irish Away - Win
Newcastle Away - Win
Exeter Home - Win
Leicester Tigers - Now 60 points Finish with 73 points
Northampton Saints Away - Win
Harlequins Away - Win
Bath Home - Bonus point win
Northampton Saints - Now 56 points Finish with 63 points
Leicester Tigers Home - Bonus point Loss
Exeter Away - Bonus point loss
Worcester Home - Bonus point win
Exeter Chiefs - Now 51 points Finish with 59 points
Worcester Away - Win
Northampton Saints Home - Win
Saracens Away - Loss