There are big matches at the top and bottom of the Aviva Premiership this weekend, with Northampton Saints hosting Leicester Tigers and Worcester Warriors travelling to Newcastle Falcons…
England’s domestic season has already been one of intrigue. Bath and Sale, a couple of resurgent sides playing with freedom, are epitomising as much. However, the Aviva Premiership is often too polite to explode into life until after the Six Nations is finished. This weekend, sparks are sure to fly and the last pair of games promise to be utterly absorbing…
East Midlands arm wrestle at the summit
“Bath have been brilliant all year and they’re third. We’ve been crap all year and we’re fourth.” Richard Cockerill is a master wind-up merchant, and those words – uttered on 2 March after his side had put 40 points on Newcastle – stirred the Premiership pot.
Acknowledging how his charges have stuttered without fully finding fluidity, Leicester’s head honcho also highlighted the ingrained grit that has somehow ground out wins. On Saturday afternoon, Leicester are entertained by Northampton – their nearest, dearest enemies. As the title race enters its final straight, Tigers are keen to pressurise Saints into relinquishing their home semi-final berth.
Prowling ten points adrift of second with five games left, Cockerill & Co head down the M1 in buoyant mood. Though Lions Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft won’t feature, the injury toll has eased. Manu Tuilagi is back in the fold and last weekend at Welford Road, Leicester managed their most complete performance of the season against Exeter. Ed Slater led magnificently, Owen Williams marshalled from fly-half and Niki Goneva maintained some defence-lacerating form.
This is the first of four matches that will define Leicester’s year. Next up is a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Clermont before league fixtures against Wasps and Harlequins. From nowhere, they seem nicely placed to take on an excruciatingly tough schedule.
Deep down, Jim Mallinder might be less optimistic about a pivotal derby day. His international big guns – awesome Courtney Lawes included – looked weary during last week’s loss at Sale. He knows Tigers always clunk into gear at the business end of the season. It was almost precisely 12 months ago that Saints were humiliated 36-8 at Franklin’s Gardens by their East Midlands adversaries.
Northampton won’t relinquish the hard work of the past seven months easily. As Mallinder has suggested, the reverse to Sale will have helped George North and Luther Burrell re-familiarise themselves with patterns and personnel. Plus they can’t be that bad twice.
Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley (if he does not run into any referee trouble) are phenomenal leaders who do not tolerate sub-standard showings. Remember Saints’ response to being thrashed by Leinster in December? The illustrious Dubliners were bullied a week later. A similar backlash is well within them. This rerun of the 2013 final – which wasn’t exactly short on drama – won’t disappoint.
Basement battle with added spite
Dean Richards and Dean Ryan are two uncompromising men with uncompromising opinions on an inevitable collision course – destination: Kingston Park. A gut-wrenching last-minute reverse to Wasps at Sixways means Sunday’s trip to the North-east is a stark matter of do or down for Worcester. Even success probably won’t save them. Over a year has now passed since their last league win and 17 consecutive losses this term is a bleak return.
Having tasted victory three times, Newcastle aren’t much better off. However, hurling caution out of the window in the final stages against Gloucester salvaged a pair of precious bonus points, sending them 12 points clear of the bottom. The scenario alone – essentially an old-fashioned relegation dogfight – is mouth-watering. But there are also some spiky off-field shenanigans to factor in.
During a Falcons’ fans forum last week, Richards riled an impressive amount people. He claimed that Gloucester had sounded him out about replacing Nigel Davies and suggested other clubs fiddle the salary cap. Then his attention turned to Worcester. Samoan wing David Lemi copped some flak for being too old – days before he put in a sparkling shift – and Ryan’s side were ridiculed for lacking culture or any sort of long-term vision.
The barb about culture certainly seemed misguided as Worcester courageously repelled wave after wave of attacks on Friday. Warriors have at times been drastically lacking in accuracy – their lineout was shocking against Wasps – but grit has rarely gone missing. Can they rouse themselves to ransack Newcastle?
Chris Pennell, an elusive, electric runner, has had a sensational season from full-back on an individual level. It would be no exaggeration to say he is capable of sparking a triumph on his own. Off the pitch, his recently signed three-year contract implies many are buying into Ryan’s future for the club.
As Worcester’s boss writes in his Guardian column today, Newcastle are a couple of seasons in front of the Warriors with regards to building something sustainable. A term in the Championship instilled steel. Former Saracens Noah Cato and Andy Saull have added class. George McGuigan, Scott Wilson and Joel Hodgson – all 21 and under – are bright prospects.
It will probably be ugly. It will certainly be tense. But should Newcastle repeat the last result between this basement duo – a turgid 16-11 win – they will send Worcester down.