Premiership weekend preview: Bath look to sink Leicester again to achieve rare double

A look ahead to this weekend's games

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The Independent Online

It was one of the results of this or any other Premiership season: Bath 45 Leicester 0, in September of last year. The Tigers were so panicky, inaccurate and ultimately humiliated that their awful orange change kit was quite the least of their problems. And guess what, it could be about to get worse. Sunday’s return fixture at a sold-out Welford Road offers Bath the chance of only a second league double over Leicester since home and away fixtures began in 1993-94.

On the one previous occasion that Bath did the double over their professional-era bête noires, there was mitigation. It was 29 November 2003 at Welford Road – ring any bells? Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Neil Back, Lewis Moody and three others played for Leicester that day, precisely a week on from winning the World Cup with England in Sydney.

This time around, Bath are on a run of seven wins in all competitions and unbeaten in five meetings with Leicester since December 2012. Tigers are still depleted, without three modern-day England stalwarts in Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Tom Croft. But Blaine Scully, Anthony Allen, Miles Benjamin, Marcos Ayerza and Jamie Gibson – all absent in September – are fit to play, while Owen Williams and Niki Goneva adopt their preferred positions of fly-half and centre. Aussie flanker Julian Salvi, whose try converted by Williams sealed Leicester’s 32-30 win at Sale last weekend, makes his 100th Tigers appearance – against his former club. Bath hand Sam Burgess a first start in the Premiership, in a little-and-gargantuan midfield comprising George Ford and Kyle Eastmond.

The four other fixtures have their own historical frisson. In their anxiety not to allow Bath and Northampton to pull clear as the top two, Saracens might have chosen other opponents on Saturday. London Irish always seem to know how to get under Sarries’ skin, and last February they inflicted one of only three losses the hosts have had in their two years’ residence at Allianz Park. With four hookers injured, London Irish give a first start to Harry Allen, the 23-year-old former England Under-18 and Harlequins hooker who is on a short term trial after completing a one-year ban for a positive test for cocaine. Allen kept himself busy by fighting in mixed martial arts. Saracens start with five England internationals including Owen Farrell at fly-half opposite Shane Geraghty, but Charlie Hodgson, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Richard Wigglesworth and Brad Barritt are either rested on rotation or injured.

Exeter’s 100th Premiership match is against the same opponents – Gloucester – as the first was in September 2010. The West Country clubs have each lost their last two league matches, but it was worse for Gloucester, as both were at Kingsholm, whereas Exeter were not shamed away to Sale and Bath. “Our challenge in the second half of the season is to turn close games into wins,” said Gloucester’s Australian head coach Laurie Fisher. While Gloucester’s England No 8 Ben Morgan prepared for only his second club appearance since October, the young Exeter stars Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie received heartening mentions in dispatches from the England head coach Stuart Lancaster on New Year’s Eve. With Exeter fly-half Gareth Steenson possessing a league-leading 88.71 per cent kicking success rate (seven misses in 62 attempts), Sandy Park expects.

So too, in all probability, the crowd of 14,000-plus predicted for the second match of Wasps’ new era at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena. Taking into account the one-offs against Northampton (30-13) and Munster (24-23) in 2007 in the European Cup, and the win over London Irish a fortnight ago, Wasps are three from three in Lady Godiva country. They start with three former Sharks – Simon McIntyre, Rob Miller and James Gaskell – against a Sale team who have won the last six meetings. Dave Seymour is Sale’s captain as Dan Braid rests an injured knee, and Joe Ford, elder brother of Bath’s George, starts at fly-half ahead of the benched Danny  Cipriani.

Meanwhile amid the Dreaming Spires – well, a few miles away on the Oxford ring road – will London Welsh’s nightmare ever end?  Winless this season, the Exiles resume a 128-year-old acquaintance with  Harlequins, who field Karl Dickson and Tim Swiel as their starting halves, with Danny Care and Ben Botica as high-powered back-up. The former All Black scrum-half Piri Weepu continues at  No 10 for Welsh, whose last win over their historical near-neighbours was a mere 30 seasons ago.

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