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European Rugby: Aviva Premiership Selected Fixtures & Top 14 Tips
While the boys down south are enjoying a well-deserved break this festive season, their northern hemisphere counterparts continue to duke it out for continental and domestic honours. Which is fantastic news for us as we get to enjoy some rugby action whilst tucking into those Christmas Eve dinners'.
I have decided to focus my attention on the Aviva Premiership this week as the competition has thrown up a rather compelling Christmas weekend fixtures list. Fret, not French rugby fans, as I’ve also included a few tips for this weekend’s Top 14 games at the foot of the page.
Anyway, enough with the introduction, let’s get stuck into it like Michael Hooper at a breakdown!
Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks | Friday 23 December | Franklin Gardens | 21:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Northampton 2/9 | Draw 22/1 | Sale 33/10
It may not be the blockbuster clash of the weekend but we should be in for a few fireworks at Franklin Gardens with Sale making a two hour trip down the M1 to take on the Saints. The two sides are currently separated by just two points on the Premiership log with Northampton in ninth-place having accrued 20 points and Sale in tenth.
The heavy December fixture lists tend to take a toll on sides who are fighting on both the European and English fronts. This is exactly the case with these two as both sides have lost some crucial players in the last few weeks. The Saints could be without talismanic Welshman George North, who sustained yet another concussion. The powerfully-built winger was left strewn on the Welford Road turf at the start of the month after being tackled whilst challenging for a cross kick. The big man is said to be touch and go for this one.
While North does have a chance of playing, England skipper Dylan Hartley is facing a lengthy ban for striking Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien with a swinging arm during a European Rugby Champions Cup fixture and will play no part.
Verdict: Sale 33/10
Northampton have been in wretched form lately. They have lost their last two Premiership games, including one at home to the Newcastle Falcons. I wouldn’t be staking the house on it but R20 on Sale could net a tidy little payout.
Saracens v Newcastle Falcons | Saturday 24 December | Allianz Park | 15:30
To Win (80 Mins)
Saracens 1/16 | Draw 38/1 | Newcastle 7/1
Up next we have the defending champions taking on mid-table opposition in the form of the Newcastle Falcons. The hosts for Saturday were well below their clinical best against the Sale Sharks last week, struggling to a 24-10 victory at the AJ Bell Stadium. Newcastle were also involved in European action, winning their Challenge Cup fixture against Lyon 48-29.
Saracens have tended to struggle during the festive season in the past but that was mainly due to injuries ravaging the squad. It’s a completely different case this year with coach Mark McCall having little to no injury concerns to deal with.
Both of these teams have been in decent nick domestically with Saracens only losing their two games this season, while Newcastle have managed to claim victory over both Northampton and the Harlequins in their last two outings.
Verdict: Saracens 1/14
My money is on ‘Saries here. The hosts have turned the Allianz into a real fortress and I just can’t see Newcastle managing a successful raid on the London Stadium.
London Wasps v Bath Rugby | Saturday 24 December | Ricoh Arena | 16:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Wasps 7/20 | Draw 21/1 | Bath 9/4
We have arrived at the pick of the round’s action, which will see the backline whippets of Wasps strut their stuff against Bath. Like Northampton and Sale, only two points separate second-placed Wasps and third-placed Bath.
Games between these two tend to be rather tight run affairs with three of the last five games being won by a margin of a converted try or less. Wasps have managed to get the better of their opponents in three of the last five meetings with Bath’s last Premiership victory over the Coventry side coming back in January 2015.
In terms of team news for this one, England internationals Danny Cipriani and Kyle Eastmond are said to be touch and go, while James Haskell is yet to recover from the toe surgery underwent earlier in the year.
Like Wasps head coach Dai Young, Bath’s man at the helm, Todd Blackadder, is also sweating on a few of his players' fitness. He will be without both Dan Bowden, who sustained a serious hamstring tear against Connacht a fortnight ago, and talented young lock Charlie Ewels, who did damage to a shoulder joint in the return leg against Connacht last Saturday evening.
There is some good news for Blackadder, however, with recent signing Robbie Fruean scoring a try during a hit out for the Bath second string. The former Canterbury Crusaders man could well start this weekend after proving his fitness with the second stringers.
Verdict: Wasps 7/20
Even if Cipriani and Eastmond do miss out, there is more than an enough quality in reserve to see Wasps through. Kurtley Beale has made a fast start to life in Coventry and has added an extra dimension to the Wasps' attack. I can see the former Waratahs man inspiring his side to a victory this Saturday.
Exeter Chiefs v Leicester | Saturday 24 December | Sandy Park | 17:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Exeter 4/10 | Draw 20/1 | Leicester 43/20
Our final port of call this week is Sandy Park, where last year’s beaten finalists will take on a resurgent Leicester side. It has been a rough opening half of the season for Exeter, who have all but bombed out of the European Rugby Champions Cup and sit outside of the top four on the Premiership standings.
Leicester have fared slightly better in Europe and are in with a shout of advancing to the next round of the competition. They’ve also given a decent account of themselves on the domestic front winning seven of their opening ten fixtures, which has left them occupying fourth position on the log.
Games between these two sides tend to go the way of the hosts with the last three games being won by the home team. These games also tend to be won by rather narrow margins with two of the last three fixtures being won by a converted try or less.
In terms of team news, both fly-half Gareth Steenson and hooker Jack Yeandle are likely to come back into the frame having been rested for the Exeter’s away trip to Bordeaux last week. Unfortunately, Tigers head coach, Aaron Mauger, is yet to announce his match day 23 at the time of writing. He is unlikely to make too many changes to the squad that managed beat Munster 18-16 in the Champions Cup, last weekend.
Verdict: Leicester 43/20
This one is extremely tough to call, but I think the Tigers may just edge it. Turning over Munster is no easy feat and it should have given them a huge amount of confidence for their trip to Sandy Park. Another game I wouldn’t be wagering the house on, but at R20 rand stake on a Leicester win should turn a tidy profit.
Quick Fire Top 14 Tips
Clermont Win 1/8
La Rochelle Win 21/20
Bordeaux Win 1/8
Castres Win 3/1
Toulon Win 22/10
Click here to see our full preview of the Grenoble v Toulouse and Brive v Lyon Top 14 Games