By Kate Bamber, Rugby World reader
With the Heineken Cup behind us after two weekends of great rugby, it’s time to don our Santa hats and jingle those bells for the festive round of Guinness Premiership games. Which teams will be on Santa’s winning list and which teams will be banished back to their training grounds with neither a satsuma nor a losing bonus point? Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend’s games:
Newcastle Falcons vs Leeds Carnegie
Newcastle and Leeds are both targeting a win from this game, and the men from Yorkshire will be staring relegation firmly in the face if they fail to get anything from this game and next weekend’s home fixture against Bath. Round 1 of the Guinness Premiership saw these sides battle it out in a rather dull 9-9 draw at Headingley Carnegie, and Leeds have only won once at Kingston Park which was way back on 15 February 2004. Newcastle have only claimed a solitary 17-6 home win against Montauban in their last four games, and their only win in their last six Guinness Premiership appearances was the 14-3 victory over Worcester on 1 November. The return of club captain Carl Hayman is therefore a welcome boost for the Falcons. Leeds have only notched up a single win in this competition which also came on 1 November in their 15-9 victory away to Wasps. Since then, Leeds ran Harlequins close in a 27-30 thriller and they have been using the Amlin Challenge Cup as a tool to prepare for these all important Premiership clashes.
My prediction: This game is as tough to call as the race for the Christmas number 1, but I think Leeds have enough rage to clinch the win. Leeds by 6.
Harlequins vs London Wasps
This fixture is also known as Big Game 2 if you love all the marketing hype. Harlequins take on Wasps at what looks like what will be a packed to the rafters Twickenham on Sunday. Wasps won 26-15 when the two sides met in Round 1, in a game that was also played at HQ. Harlequins seem to be hotting up after a stuttering start to the season, and their recent Guinness Premiership form shows only one loss from four. Contrast this to the back to back defeats against Sale in the Heineken Cup and the Quins’ consistency has to be questioned. Wasps have won five of their last six matches in all competitions and have also won on three of their last four visits to Twickenham. With a morale boosting closely fought 24-22 home win against Leicester in their last Premiership outing before beating Bayonne twice in the Amlin Challenge Cup, I think Wasps will have the edge.
My prediction: A post-Christmas cracker filled with plenty of goodies, with Wasps winning by 7.
London Irish vs Saracens
Undoubtedly this game is the fixture of the festive round, as first place Saracens take on second placed Irish at the Madejski Stadium. Saracens remain the only unbeaten side in the Guinness Premiership and London Irish will be hoping to give their fans the gift of a win, having not won at the Madejski Stadium in this competition since their 18-12 victory over Leicester on 24th October. The recent form of both teams has been strong, with both completing back to back wins in their respective European competitions in the last fortnight. Saracens’ last loss was in the LV=Cup game against Northampton on 14th November and since this defeat they have strung together an unbeaten run of six games across all competitions. Irish were last defeated at home to Newcastle Falcons by 11-15 on the 22nd November and have lost one game from their last six. With all previous meetings between these two being won by the home side this is a close one to call.
My prediction: Like a pair of jeans that are too tight after a large Christmas dinner – something has to give. London Irish to win by 5.
Bath vs Gloucester
Bath, one of the early contenders for relegation, host their West Country rivals in this crucial game before their visit to bottom of the table Leeds next weekend. Bath’s failure to notch up a win in any of their last seven Guinness Premiership matches equals their worst ever run in the Premiership since 2002/2003, and Steve Meehan’s men are looking to get their awful season on track after being all but out of the Heineken Cup. Gloucester have won their last four meetings with Bath, but their only away win this season came against Leeds back on 4 October. Neither of these sides has shown much of the quality usually expected of them this season, but a battle between these local rivals always has that extra dash of spice.
My prediction: Gloucester to glide their way to a 9 point win on their cherry and white sleigh.
Leicester Tigers vs Sale Sharks
With the fortress that is Welford Road and the form of both teams going into this game, I can only realistically see there being one winner – and that isn’t Sale. The Tigers are unbeaten in their last 23 matches at Welford Road since Wasps turned them over 28-19 in the Guinness Premiership way back in September of 2008. Sale did beat the East Midlands outfit in round one in a close 15-12 encounter at Edgeley Park, however despite their back to back wins over Harlequins in the Heineken Cup over the past fortnight, Sale’s away form in the Guinness Premiership is nothing short of woeful as they have only won one out of their last ten games on the road. After two tough clashes against Clermont Auvergne, the Tigers might rest some of their big name stars, but I still think they’ll have enough to beat Sale, especially now that their head coach Richard Cockerill is allowed to get up off the naughty step.
My prediction: A tinsel-wrapped 12 point winning margin for Leicester.
Worcester Warriors vs Northampton Saints
Worcester have drawn their last three Guinness Premiership matches and their last win in any competition came in the 32-6 victory at home to Newcastle in the LV= Cup on 7th November. The Warrior’s home record against the Saints is hardly glittering, as they have only won one game of their five previous encounters which was way back in 2005. Northampton’s array of stars will confidently stride into this game having won their last seven matches across all competitions, including a tough trip to snowy Treviso in the Heineken Cup last weekend. Worcester will have to watch out for dangerman Chris Ashton who has already bagged seven tries so far this season, and will look to their top points scorer, fly-half Willie Walker, to try and take control of the game.
My prediction: Northampton to give Worcester a good old festive stuffing by 15.
So what do you think? Are my predictions as spot on as the perfect Christmas dinner, or have I been overdosing on egg-nog? Please let me know what you think!