Big guns back on Premiership duty
February 14, 2014
Mako Vunipola lines up for Saracens on Friday as he attempts to force his way back into the England team © Getty Images
While the Six Nations takes a well-earned rest for a weekend, the Aviva Premiership takes centre stage as a host of players seek to prove to England boss Stuart Lancaster they are worthy of a place in the side for their next game against Ireland. International matches aside, there is still plenty on the line in England's top flight as the battle for a space in the play-offs intensifies and Worcester seek to peg back those teams around them at the foot of the table.
Round 14 kicks-off on Friday night with Saracens travelling to Sale with Saturday seeing Harlequins host Newcastle, London Irish journeying to Wasps, Northampton tackling Worcester at Franklin's Gardens and Bath looking for West Country bragging rights over Exeter at the Rec. Come Sunday the attention switches to Welford Road for Leicester's match against Gloucester.
The runners and riders
Sale Sharks are playing some great rugby at present and have won their last two games in the Premiership. In Round 12 they knocked over Newcastle but backed that up with an impressive 24-19 triumph at home to Gloucester last Friday. Despite the losses of James Gaskell, Henry Thomas and Rob Miller ahead of next season, Steve Diamond has managed to instill some bite back into the Sharks after their poor 2012-13 campaign and if they continue in this manner for the rest of the season they may retain their spot in the top six.
While Sale are doing well in sixth, the Premiership's pace setters are Northampton. They knocked over Exeter 17-16 last weekend, an impressive feat considering the Chiefs' good record at their Sandy Park home, and have also eased past Harlequins and Bath in recent weeks.
London Irish are also getting the required results and pulled off the shock of the season in Round 13 when they knocked over Saracens at their Allianz Park home.
And when talking about form, mention has to be given to one player - fullback Chris Pennell. He has been fantastic for Worcester this season and deserves every accolade.
Out of form
The Newcastle Falcons last experienced a win in the Premiership back in October. While their long-awaited win may not come against Harlequins this weekend, they need to keep on striving to pick up points here and there as Worcester will eventually win a match. Gloucester have lost their last two in the top flight while Exeter have lost their last three - they too will want to get back to winning ways this weekend.
And then there's Worcester. They are yet to win a single game in the league this season but they pushed Leicester all the way last Friday. On another day, that game could and perhaps should have gone the Warriors' way. Dean Ryan told ESPN it's all about subscribing to that old cliché of taking it one game and a time and they will look to get that long-awaited victory against Northampton this weekend.
Points to prove
A fallow weekend in the Six Nations traditionally sees a host of players released back to their clubs to top up their match fitness and this round is no different. England allowed 18 of their training squad to return to their respective clubs earlier this week and they are likely to be in action this weekend. While the England side is fairly settled, there are still spaces up for grabs among the replacements.
While much of the attention will be on the England players, Kelly Brown may also take up some space in the headlines as he starts on Friday evening for Saracens after he was dropped for Scotland's match against England.
There have been 89 yellow cards in the Premiership this term - Gloucester have been the worst offending team this season.
He might not be good enough for England, but George Ford is the Premiership's top points scorer this term with 151. It's a similar story on the try front as David Strettle is leading the charts with eight.
The Premiership's most accurate kicker may come as a surprise - it's Worcester's Pennell.
London Irish are playing well and have lost just one of their last six matches in all competitions: 22-15 to London Wasps at Adams Park in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on January 25.
The Saints have won their last nine contests in all tournaments and have not been defeated at home in the Premiership since Leicester were the visitors on March 20 2013.
Exeter's solo victory over Bath in their 11 previous meetings in all competitions came way back in January 1978 in the John Player Cup first round at the old County Ground.
Friday night will see a narrow win for Saracens with Harlequins, London Irish and Northampton triumphant on Saturday. Exeter's match against Bath will end in a draw. Sunday will see a win for Leicester but by a point or two.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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