Planet Rugby features writer James While picks out the key talking points ahead of the Premiership, United Rugby Championship and Top 14 weekend.
With plenty of off-field concern in rugby right now, it will be nice to return to the on-field action in what should be another thrilling round.
Last weekend, Planet Rugby suggested that we’d see a clean sweep of five away wins in the Premiership. For those of a betting inclination, a small wager would have resulted in a large accumulator, as Northampton Saints kept punters on the edge of their seats to the last moment of the match in Coventry, pulling off an incredible last-gasp win in a match that sadly appears to be the last for some time for the proud Wasps outfit.
This weekend, our crystal ball suggests the opposite will be the case as almost exclusively, the top half of the table hosts the bottom half. But, with the Premiership on-pitch product completely out-performing its rather depressing off-pitch shenanigans, another weekend of high quality action is absolutely key to underpinning the eroding credibility of England’s shop window of rugby union.
Expect some close matches, but if you’re of a betting mindset, a little flutter on another clean sweep – this time of home wins – isn’t the worst punt around.
All star cast
Over in the Top 14, the match of the weekend simply has to be La Rochelle v Toulon. Expect to see another sell-out 16,000 in the wonderful Stade Marcel-Deflandre, to see two of the finest sides in Europe go head to head. As a subplot, this also sees the Champions Cup winners facing the Challenge Cup holders, something that doesn’t happen too often at domestic level.
The talent on display is absolutely staggering; in the back-rows alone, we see four of the greatest loose forwards of the modern era on display, as Gregory Alldritt, Victor Vito, Sergio Parisse and Charles Ollivon all look likely to be on duty.
The last piece of the subplot sees former La Rochelle fly-half Ihaia West moving from west coast to south coast, as his move to Toulon this season has ignited their backline. The last time these two sides met at the Stade Mayol in March saw a convincing 41-11 win for Toulon, but we see this as a chance for revenge for the jaune et noirs in what could be the showpiece of this week’s domestic rugby.
Stoney ride for Bath
Bath’s trip to the StoneX Stadium couldn’t come at a worse time for them. Rooted at the foot of the table, they visit the mighty Saracens, a side that have evolved their style from their kick-and-chase game into a wonderful offloading all-court game, catalysed by the likes of Theo McFarland and Billy Vunipola and finished by the brilliance in the backline of the red-hot form of England’s Elliot Daly, coupled with the gas of Bristol-bound Max Malins.
Now, working on our assumption of the home win clean sweep, you’d expect this match to be all over bar the shouting – but last weekend against Gloucester, Bath perhaps showed the green shoots of recovery, as they pushed their West Country rivals all the way, with brilliant displays from Joe Cokanasiga and Ollie Lawrence. With Piers Francis out with a quad injury, England hopeful Orlando Bailey starts at 10, offering a real edge to the Bath attack.
Bath might not have quite enough firepower up front to see off Saracens but expect to see a thriller of a match on the 4G pitch, which inspires the running rugby that both teams are delivering this season.
The big game
At the Stoop, we see two of the best sides of last year’s Premiership campaign face each other in a match that really is a Sunday Roast of gastronomic wonder as fifth placed Harlequins face eighth placed Leicester Tigers.
Bluntly, both sides have flattered to deceive this season – neither gaining the momentum or results of the latter part of 2021/22, and with Leicester Tigers sorely missing their departing England stars, Ellis Genge and George Ford. Steve Borthwick has gone on record as saying that they’re lacking accuracy and are not playing as he would wish, especially considering that their big signing to replace Ford, Handre Pollard, seems to be struggling with reoccurrence of his knee injury.
Monumental numbers for Quins this Sunday 🙌@JoeMarler 2⃣5⃣0⃣ appearances
Andre Esterhuizen5⃣0⃣ appearances
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) October 14, 2022
With Quins underachieving in results, but playing some divine attacking rugby, we see this as a chance for a number of England hopefuls to impress the watching Eddie Jones. The headline may very well be around the call-up of Luke Northmore and Caden Murley, two players very unlucky not to have had a positive message from Twickenham this season.
With Leinster facing a tough away trip to their long-term rivals Connacht and Ulster travelling down to face the Lions in Johannesburg, all eyes will be on the Stormers as they play the Ospreys, hoping to close the gap at the top of the United Rugby Championship.
With their glittering Springboks back and a game in hand, the Cape Town side are very much the unbeaten form side with 14 consecutive wins. Ospreys remain midtable on account of a good points difference, but the sheer power of the Stormers gainline, with a 66.7% success rate should see them home, especially considering that the hosts have the worst gainline carries return, winning the collision only 44% of the time.
However, Toby Booth’s men see the return of 300 Test caps, and almost 500kgs of formidable beef as four British and Irish Lions, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, George North and the indefatigable great, Alun Wyn Jones, all start.
Crossing hemispheres has not been an issue for the URC sides, and given the form of the Stormers, you’d expect them to be red-hot favourites, but we feel, given Booth’s returning Welsh legends, that this one just might provide us with the shock result of the weekend, with Ospreys edging the Cape Town side out in a close and physical match.