As another weekend of domestic action prepares to kick off, RW takes a look at some of the key talking points that could shape this weekend's Premiership and Pro12 action
Keys for No. 10…
Such is the intensity of the Bath v Leicester rivalry that matches between the two sides carry a health warning as it is, but this weekend’s clash has an extra special element. The tactical tussle between George Ford and Freddie Burns is a tantalising prospect, pitting two of England’s in-form No. 10’s against each other just a year out from a World Cup in which both will be jostling to play a role. Ford’s second season in Bath colours has started in a measured, yet promising fashion. His ability to play flat and ability to bring others into the game are well-documented, and he will be keen to showcase those gifts against his former employers, but last weekend’s kicking display also answered some critics of his abilities from the tee.
For his part, Burns has seized the 10 shirt at Leicester with both hands since hooking up after an underwhelming final season with Gloucester. The maturity of his display at Exeter last weekend was met with plaudits and was a major factor in the Tigers’ victory. The battle at the breakdown and line-speeds of both backlines will have a large say on the outcome, yet whoever comes out on top between Ford and Burns could prove pivotal.
Battle of the backrows: Chris Robshaw v James Haskell
Chris Robshaw and James Haskell had wildly contrasting fortunes in Round 2. Whilst the former’s consisted of regrouping his side under the posts as Saracens collected points at will, the latter played a captain’s role in Wasps 20-16 downing of the champions. However Robshaw has a chance to atone for his side’s capitulation against an upbeat Wasps side.
Physically, the two are evenly matched and both are influential leaders, Robshaw has only recently been stood down from his captaincy at Quins so as not to overburden him in a World Cup year, whilst Haskell holds the talisman position for Wasps, a role he played effectively against Saints. Wasps line-breaker Ashley Johnson will start on the bench, so Haskell’s role in nullifying the Quins back-row will be heightened. The collisions could be seismic.
Irish’s different European stories
When the final whistle went on Connacht’s momentous 16-14 Heineken Cup victory over Toulouse last year, the European profile of the ‘fourth’ Irish province was given a shot of adrenalin. After all, they were competing in the prestigious tournament for just the third time, this came as they were bottom of the Pro12 at the time. Yet back in 2011, when the Galway-based club were appearing in Europe’s premier tournament for the first time, they had this weekend’s opponents to thank for lunching at the top table.
Leinster’s three Heineken titles in a four-year period included success in 2011, and that victory resulted in Connacht’s qualification for the following year’s tournament. Fast-forward to 2014, and it is the hosts who have sprung out of the traps fastest, sitting atop of the Pro12 ladder with back-to-back wins. Leinster will be intent on ensuring that run comes to an end at the Sportsground, but Connacht will go into the game with no inferiority complex and without needing their provincial rivals to give them a leg up anymore.
Lions out to prove a point…
There will be no less than five British and Irish Lions on the pitch at kick-off when Cardiff and Ulster clash in the Pro12 tonight. In the Blues corner, are Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Alex Cuthbert, while in white are Rory Best and Tommy Bowe who have worn the coveted Lions jersey. All five have differing reasons for wanting to make a mark.
Bowe and Jones have ground to make up in their national shirts. Bowe, through long-standing injury problems, has work to do to usurp Dave Kearney from the Ireland shirt, while Jones is working his way back to fitness after a troubled summer where he was hooked before half-time against South Africa in the Second Test and then found himself without a club until August after well-documented club v country problems. In slightly fine fettle are Cuthbert, who was a man possessed in the Second Test in South Africa and has started off the season confidently, crossing the whitewash against Treviso and Matthew Rees who has been rolling back the years and said he’s even ‘surprised himself’ in how he has returned from testicular cancer. As for Best, his leadership qualities are even more in demand an Ulster side that has had its fair share of turbulence over the summer. Those subplots will be fascinating to watch…