Northampton Saints v London Wasps | Friday 29 January | Franklin Gardens | 21:45
We kick this weekend’s European rugby action off with a tie between the Northampton Saints and the London Wasps at Franklin Gardens. With Saints only two points ahead of the 6th placed Wasps on the Aviva Premiership log, this game could have a massive bearing on who makes it into the semi-finals of the tournament.
Can Saints swot away the Wasps or will Charles Pitau and co make it a night to forget for the Franklin Gardens faithful?
To Win (80 Mins)
The hosts are coming into this one off the back of an impressive run of form that has seen them convincingly win their last two Champions Cup games and advance to the quarter-finals of the competition. While those wins came against two sides that you’d expect them to beat in the form of Wales’ Cardiff Blues and Scotland’s Glasgow Warriors; the victories would have still given Jim Mallinders side a massive confidence boost heading into their vital domestic clash with Wasps.
While they’ve sealed qualification to knock out phase of the Champions Cup, they are in a much more precarious position in their domestic league. They currently occupy fifth spot on the Aviva Premiership log but have Wasps and an ever improving Gloucester side biting at their heels. They’re also seven points off the Leicester Tigers who currently occupy the last semi-final qualification berth.
Despite my previous paragraph indicating a desperate sense of urgency around Saints domestic campaign, it must be remembered that there are still 13 rounds to play in the competition and things could change dramatically between now and the last set of round robin fixtures that are to be played at the beginning of May.
Head coach, Jim Mallinder will be desperate for them to start ascending the Premiership table, and what better way to do this than beating one of their closest log rivals this weekend. They’ve got every chance of doing it as well, mainly due to their opponents' inconsistent form. On paper, Wasps should win this game but the London-based club have struggled for results on the road. Factor in the Saints' impressive home record – they’ve won 3 out of their 4 home fixtures this term, with their only home loss coming at the hands of the might Saries – and you can see why Mallinder and his charges will go into this one full of confidence.
The man who could lead Saints to their fourth home victory of the season is George North. The man who is known as the Welsh Lomu had a slow start to the season but has improved with each passing week. His physicality will be vital as he’s likely to line up against one of the most exciting wingers in the tournament in the form of Frank Halai. The duel between Halai and North is likely to be worth the entrance fee alone. Both men relish the contact situation. They also have blistering pace, and I’m personally hoping to see one of them break free from deep inside their own half, just so we can witness the other try race back and tackle him.
Speaking of battles, there is going to be an almighty one between the two forward packs at Franklin Gardens on Friday evening. Newly appointed England skipper Dylan Hartley, Alex Waller, and another member of England’s 2016 Six Nations squad, Paul Hill, are likely to form the Saints starting front row. They will be going up against an experienced front row that contains Italian international Lorennzo Citidani. Sparks are set to fly when these six men pack down.
A massive 51-10 win over Irish giants Leinster last week saw Wasps secure a berth in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. With their progress in Europe secured, Dai Young and his charges will now be looking to climb the Aviva Premiership table.
While sixth position isn’t the worst place to be at this stage in the season, Wasps really need to find some consistency if they are to reach their goal of making the Aviva Premiership semi-finals in May. They have an extremely talented side that contains numerous seasoned internationals. Their backline, when firing, is probably one of the most potent attacking forces in Europe. While their pack is capable of standing up to even the most decorated scrums in Europe.
So why aren’t Wasps a lot closer to the top of the log? Inconsistency and a poor away record seem to be the reasons. They’ve lost three of their four away Aviva Premiership fixtures this term, and while you’d expect them to struggle on the road against teams like Quins and Exeter, they really should have beaten the likes of Sale.
They’ve got a good chance to improve on that poor away record this weekend as Saints have a few kinks in their armour. One of which is their line out; which is rather strange as Victor Matfield has started most of their games. Another facet Wasps could dominate on Friday is the breakdown. Although Saints do have a decent loose trio, their forwards are sometimes guilty of not getting to the breakdown quick enough, and with George Smith likely to start for the Saints, any opportunity Wasps get to turnover ball will be grasped with both hands.
Dai Young is likely to tell his charges to target these areas and if Wasps can dominate the line-out and the breakdown stakes, then they’ll have a perfect platform for their exciting backline to work off.
Verdict: Wasps 27/10
This game is proving tough to call with Northampton coming into form and Wasps coming off the back of a massive victory over Leinster in the European Cup. I’m going to stick my neck out here and back the away side to reign supreme at Franklins Gardens.
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