Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
London Irish v Northampton Saints | Saturday 26 December | Madejski Stadium | 17:00
After two weeks of European action, the Aviva Premiership returns with a bang. The first game of an interesting looking fixtures list sees cellar-dwellers, London Irish tackle the revitalised Northampton Saints at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday.
With the hosts desperate to get out of the relegation zone as soon as possible and the visitors looking to continue their ascent up the log, this game promises to be a no holds bar affair.
To Win (80 Mins)
This is probably one of the worst starts to a campaign that Irish have ever endured. While they have been on a steady decline over the last few years, this is not the start you'd expect from a side that contains so many talented players.
In my opinion, it's not the quality of the playing personnel that's seen them struggle but rather their inability to function as a unit. Their front row illustrates this point brilliantly. When you've got All Black Ben Franks, talented English youngster, Gerard Ellis, and Irish International Tom Court making up your front row, you should really dominate at scrum time. This has not been the case, though. The three bruisers have struggled to provide a solid platform on their own put in let alone disrupt the opposition's feed. While I fully expect them to click in the not too distant future, it may be too little too late for Irish's season.
This inability to gel isn't only confined to the front row. Tom Fowlie and Johnny Williams have performed as though they only met yesterday whilst the experienced half-back pairing of Shane Geraghty and Darren Allison have failed to control proceedings this season.
To make matters worse for Irish they're coming off a European defeat to Edinburgh that may have just spelt the end of the of their Challenge Cup campaign. Demoralised and struggling to adapt to one another, Irish are going to need to pull a rabbit out of the hat if they are to win this one.
Can you call last weekend's draw against an undercooked Racing side a step in the right direction? I think it depends on your perspective. If you look at it solely on the basis of their European log standing, you'd have to say it was more stagnant than anything else. Yes, they picked up a point, which may well see them snatch a place in the next round of the Champions Cup, but it could just as well prove to be the game that sees them exit the competition before the next stage. If you look at it in terms of the performances the players put in, then you have to say it was an improvement.
Saints' star man, George North, saw a lot more of the ball, whilst goal kicking machine Steven Myler was back to his magnificent best. There will still be a few concerns for director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, though. His primary concern is likely to be his side's inability to score tries. Their last two games - both against Racing in the Champions Cup - saw the Saints fail to notch up a five-pointer. Their domestic form reiterates their try scoring woes. The men from Northampton have only run in seven tries in their six matches.
Mallinder will be hoping the likes of North, Luther Burell and Ben Foden are able to step up to the mark and get their names on the try scorers list this weekend.
Verdict: Northampton 2/11
The Saints haven't been great this season, but Irish have been a whole lot worse. Back the visitors to leave the Madejski with a vital win under their belts at 2/11.
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