As we enter the third week of the 2008/09 Guinness Premiership, spare a thought for the three winless teams in the competition. Bristol, Saracens… and… defending champions London Wasps.
Rugby 365 reports that it is not often that any reigning champions have started so badly in defence of their title – although, amazingly, Wasps also lost both of their opening matches in the 2004/05 season – the last time any defending champions have achieved that ‘feat’.
The historians out there will be quick to point out that Wasps got nowhere that season, as Sale Sharks won their first Guinness Premiership title, but Wasps know all about fighting back from a poor start; having triumphed last season after languishing in tenth place on the log at one stage in 2007/08.
“It’s true to form mate,” giant Wasps lock Simon Shaw told rugby365.com this week, “usually, we tend to start badly, so it’s not a worry for us at this stage.”
Bristol, however, will be a worried bunch, and they will host the unbeaten Sale Sharks at the Memorial Stadium in the weekend’s first match on Friday night.
Sale have etched out two hard-fought victories thus far; beating Newcastle Falcons 14-9 at Kingston Park, before edging out Saracens 18-15 at Edgeley Park last Friday evening.
“Last week we won the game against a very disciplined Saracens team and I am looking for the same type of performance,” said Sale Sharks boss Philippe Saint-André. “We have defended well so far this season and it is important we continue to be mean at the back.”
Looking at Saturday’s action, rugby aficionados across England – and beyond – will be treated to four matches, all of which kick-off at 3pm local time.
Aside from Wasps trying to open their account in 2008/09, away to Northampton Saints; London Irish will entertain Bath in Reading; Gloucester will play host to Harlequins and Leicester Tigers travel to Sixways for a meeting with the all-conquering Worcester Warriors.
Bath will be looking to bounce back from their disappointing defeat at the hands of West Country neighbours Gloucester last weekend, after looking decidedly second rate for most of the game.
One man wanting to forget that match as soon as possible is Bath’s Springbok star Butch James, whose goalkicking was woeful, before having a kick charged down which eventually led to a Gloucester try.
“Everyone has been quite positive this week,” said Bath No.9 Michael Claassens, James’s countryman and fellow Bok. “We didn’t play well enough as a team against Gloucester, but we know what went wrong. Hopefully, we can go out this week and prove ourselves again.
“The positives that we can take out of the last game are that we almost won against one of the best teams in the league. I also think that Butch will bounce back and could be Man of the Match.”
Whilst Bath look to bounce back from last week’s disappointment, the week could not have turned out any differently for their opponents at The Rec, Gloucester. The ‘Cherry and Whites’ had started their 2008/09 campaign with a disastrous home loss to their new bogey team, Leicester, but they wasted no time in getting their season back on track.
However, Gloucester can take nothing for granted when they host the log-leading Londoners, Harlequins, at the ‘Shed’, with opposition coaches, the Deans, Ryan (Gloucester) and Richards (Quins), both fearsome former England No.8s.
Gloucester will be confident after their win over Bath, whilst Quins will also be on a high after making it two from two with a convincing away win over Bristol. The only worry for Quins at this stage is the fact that key playmaker and big-name signing Nick Evans picked up a knee injury, with Aussie Chris Malone stepping into the breach.
A player to watch on the Quins team will be Malone’s halfback partner Danny Care (pictured above). The little No.9 might have blotted his England copybook off the field in New Zealand, but his performances this season will not keep him out of Martin Johnson’s plans for too long…
One team with serious injury worries at a very early stage of the season is Heyneke Meyer’s Tigers side. The Leicestermen have made a great start to the season, but lock Richard Blaze (knee), scrumhalf Harry Ellis (knee), centre Dan Hipkiss (shoulder) and utility back Sam Vesty (ribs) will all miss Saturday’s Sixway sojourn.
Club skipper Martin Corry is set to make a return from a groin injury, but their injury list remains worrying; with big names Martin Castrogiovanni (groin), Louis Deacon (back), Lewis Moody (hip and Achilles) and Derick Hougaard (shoulder) not having featured yet this season. Powerhouse winger Alesana Tuilagi is also currently injured – counting nine first choice players sidelined, a big amount for any club.
Sunday’s sole Premiership match is shaping up as a grudge encounter of note as Saracens play host to Jonny Wilkinson and co. at Vicarage Road – a team that beat the Men in Black (for the uneducated, that’s Saracens – yes, we know the Falcons also play in black, and pink, sometimes) twice last season.
We, at rugby365.com, have made no secret of the fact that Newcastle Falcons could be headed for the drop this season, but they surprised friend and foe last week when Sir Jonny kicked them home against the Saints.
IF Jonny fires this season, and stays fit, the Falcons coudl just rubbish our pre-season prediction, but this week’s away trip could give us a fair indication as to how good – or bad – this Newcastle team is.
“Every game on the road is hard, but we’ve sat down in the off-season and really talked about our strategy away from home, both in terms of the tactics we use in the game and the stuff behind the scenes in terms of travel and all the rest of it,” explained Newcastle scrumhalf James Grindal on newcastle-falcons.co.uk.
“We’re not going to try anything too flash, we’re keeping it simple and we really want to have a different mentality away from home.
“We will play a good territorial game to put pressure on the home team, particularly Sarries when they’re 0 from 2. Let’s put the ball in their court, see what they can throw at us and hit them like we did in the second half against Northampton last weekend.”
Weekend fixtures, teams and predictions:
Friday, September 19
Bristol Rugby v Sale Sharks, 19.45 local time (20.45 SA time)
Referee: David Rose
Bristol Rugby: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Tom Arscott, 13 Neil Brew, 12 Ed Barnes, 11 David Lemi, 10 Adrian Jarvis, 9 Graeme Beveridge, 8 Dan Ward-Smith, 7 Joe El Abd (captain), 6 Alfie To’oala, 5 Nathan Budgett, 4 Mariano Sambucetti, 3 Jason Hobson, 2 Scott Linklater, 1 Alex Clarke.
Replacements: 16 David Blaney, 17 Peter Bracken, 18 Roy Winters, 19 Redford Pennycook, 20 Haydn Thomas, 21 Vunga Lilo, 22 Greg Barden.
Sale Sharks: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Luke McAlister, 12 Lee Thomas, 11 Rory Lamont, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Sebastien Chabal, 7 Luke Abraham, 6 Kristian Ormsby, 5 Dean Schofield, 4 Chris Jones, 3 Eifion Roberts, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan,
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Stuart Turner, 18 Sean Cox, 19 Jason White, 20 Richard Wigglesworth, 21 Chris Bell, 22 Oriol Ripol.
rugby365.com prediction: Sale are a powerful team, with plenty of depth – just look at that bench of theirs! – and they will make it three from three this weekend; leaving Bristol winless after three weeks.
Saturday, September 20
Gloucester Rugby v Harlequins, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Rob Debney
Gloucester Rugby: TBC.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 David Strettle, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Chris Malone, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Will Skinner (captain), 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Robson, 4 Ollie Kohn, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Tani Fuga, 1 Ceri Jones.
Replacements: 16 Gary Botha, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Jim Evans, 19 Tom Guest, 20 Andy Gomarsall, 21 Tom Williams, 22 Waisea Luveniyali.
rugby365.com prediction: On a dry patch at Kingsholm, this should be the game of the weekend. The ‘Cherry and Whites’ to triumph in an open affair.
Saturday, September 20
London Irish v Bath Rugby, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Dave Pearson
London Irish: TBC.
Bath Rugby: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Bath were horrid last week and it just seems really unlikely that Butch James will play that badly again. That said, London Irish are a seriously good side – as they showed against Leicester last week. We are tipping the Exiles to edge this one.
Saturday, September 20
Northampton Saints v London Wasps, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Chris White
Northampton Saints: TBC.
London Wasps: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Wow, this is NOT an easy one to call. Expect a ferocious battle, with the defending champions coming away with four valuable points away from home – only just…
Saturday, September 20
Worcester Warriors v Leicester Tigers, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Andrew Small
Worcester Warriors: TBC.
Leicester Tigers: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Worcester caused probably the biggest shock for some time with their win at Adams Park last week, while Leicester scraped home against London Irish. Tigers have a few injury worries and Heyneke Meyer’s luck has to run out some time… We’ll give this one to Worcester.
Sunday, September 21
Saracens v Newcastle Falcons, 15.00 local time (16.00 SA time)
Referee: Dean Richards
Newcastle Falcons: TBC.
rugby365.com prediction: Saracens to win – of that there is no doubt.Tweet