Premiership battle hots up
September 23, 2009
Saracens' fans will make their first trip to Vicarage Road this weekend after recent stops at Twickenham and Wembley © Getty Images
The Guinness Premiership reaches Round 4 this weekend with Wasps and Saracens currently setting the pace at the top of the table.
Newcastle Falcons and Harlequins kick the latest action off at Kingston Park on Friday night. The Falcons remain winless after the first three rounds and have not won since a 14-10 victory at home to Leicester in March.
Quins are also looking for their first win of the season and welcome back England scrum-half Danny Care and Pumas wing Gonzalo Camacho. Care starts alongside Nick Evans, while Camacho joins a back-three also featuring Ugo Monye and David Strettle.
For the home side, Micky Young, Jimmy Gopperth and Danny Williams have all passed fitness tests and start at scrum-half, fly-half and wing respectively. Peter Browne starts at blindside as Ed Williamson misses out due to illness, with Tim Swinson also joining the pack. Matt Thompson starts at hooker in place of Rob Vickers. [Teams]
The action continues on Saturday with Northampton playing host to Leeds Carnegie at Franklin's Gardens. The Saints have won four of their last five matches in all competitions, whilst their only home defeat since March 2007 remains 13-19 Premiership reverse at the hands of Newcastle in February.
Leeds Carnegie just have two points to show from their first three matches this season, courtesy of an opening weekend draw at home to Newcastle and have won only one of their last 23 away games in the Premiership. The last four Premiership meetings between the two teams have been won by the home side, whilst Leeds have never won in five previous visits to Franklin's Gardens in the Premiership.
The Saints have made four changes to their side with Chris Mayor, Brett Sharman, Courtney Lawes and Roger Wilson coming in for James Downey, Dylan Hartley, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and Neil Best respectively. Leeds have also made four changes with Jonny Hepworth reverting back to the starting XV in place of Luther Burrell while in the forwards, hooker Phil Nilsen comes in for his first start this season in place of Vili Ma'asi and Rhys Oakley returns at No.8 in place of Alfie To'oala. Finally, Academy back row graduate Tom Denton comes in for his Premiership debut at open side flanker.
Worcester continue their campaign against Sale at Sixways. The Warriors have won just one of their three matches so far, but have been victorious in four of their last five games at home in all competitions. The Sharks have not won since their opening day victory over Leicester but return to the site of their most recent away victory. Incredibly the last seven occasions that the teams have met have resulted in a victory for the away side.
Back-row Netani Talei returns to the Worcester starting line-up in the place of Kai Horstmann while hooker Aleki Lutui gets the nod ahead of Chris Fortey. Fly-half Joe Carlisle has recovered from a knee injury to make the match squad for the first time this season and is named among the replacements alongside fit again prop Shaun Ruwers.
The Sharks welcome back Charlie Hodgson from injury while Oriol Ripol and Brent Cockbain make their first starts of the new season. Lee Thomas moves back into the centres after covering for Hodgson at fly-half.
Bath will be looking to build on their first win of the season last weekend when they take on defending champions Leicester at The Rec but they have lost two of their last three home matches.
The Tigers have recorded back-to-back wins in the Premiership but of some concern will be the fact that their last 14 scoring actions have all been penalty goals kicked by new recruit Jeremy Staunton. But they have won four of their last six away matches and have obtained at least a point from each of their last nine Premiership away games. The teams met on five separate occasions in all competitions last season with Bath victorious just once while the Tigers have won on just one of their last seven visits to Bath.
Nick Abendanon returns at fullback for the hosts whilst Matt Banahan moves to the centre in place of Matt Carraro who injured his thumb earlier in the week in a domestic accident.
The Tigers' international trio Julian White, Lewis Moody and Aaron Mauger all make their first starts with Richard Blaze and Jordan Crane also returning. James Grindal makes his first appearance for the club since his return to Welford Road this summer. Boris Stankovich and Dan Hipkiss also return after injury and have been named among the replacements.
In the weekend's other game, Saracens will play their second 'home' game of the season but first at Vicarage Road, following their trip to Wembley in Round 2, against Gloucester. The Watford-based club have also made a perfect start to the season with three wins out of three, and only find themselves in second spot to Wasps because of an inferior points difference.
Gloucester only win in their last seven Premiership encounters was at home to Bath earlier this month and they have not won away from home in any competition in 2009. But they will take heart from the fact that they have won eight of their last nine clashes with Sarries.
Sarries captain Steve Borthwick has been passed fit in the second row and he is joined by Mouritz Botha at lock. Wikus van Heerden returns to the back row and Fabio Ongaro gets his first start of the season at hooker. Glen Jackson returns to the fly-half spot while on the bench, prop Matias Aguero returns from injury to get his first run out of the season.
Summer signing, prop Paul Doran-Jones, will make his full Premiership debut for Gloucester whilst Adam Eustace will feature for the first time this season as he takes over from the suspended Gareth Delve at No.8.
Doran-Jones comes in for Greg Somerville at tight-head with the New Zealand international ruled out after a training ground incident which has also sidelined Marco Bortolami. Other changes see James Simpson-Daniel return on the wing having recovered from the illness that ruled him out last weekend and Rory Lawson resume his half back partnership with Nicky Robinson.
In the pack, Olivier Azam makes his first start of the season at hooker whilst Peter Buxton forms a new look second row duo with Alex Brown and Alasdair Strokosch returns on the flank.
Tom Hamilton pays a visit to Oxford University Women's Rugby Football Club who have recently made headlines across the world, from Tokyo to New York
"Gentlemen, if you want to see the World Cup going south yet again, you are going the right way about it," John Taylor looks at the state of European rugby
The Heineken Cup proved once again just why it is the best domestic rugby competition in the world at the weekend and Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points