The madness of Professional rugby scheduling continues this weekend as the Aviva Premiership kicks off again.
Madness, because with the Six Nations also running this weekend, a number of teams will be without their best players. Throw in a couple of injuries and the fact that sides have the U20s Six Nations and the U18 Premiership to consider for a few of their younger players, and it seems to be just an unnecessary stretching of resources. Not to mention a weekend where gate receipts will be down because fans will stay at home and watch the national side play.
The problem really stems from the play offs at the end of the season. Most international weekends are covered by the LV=Cup, which works well because it is used as a big talent development exercise. That cannot be done with the Premiership, clubs livelihood depends on that, they cannot afford to just chuck in a few youngsters.
The trouble is that in order to fit in the play off schedule, a few Premiership rounds also have to take place during international windows. Now, it would be unfair to suggest that the play offs are not a good thing, they are tremendously exciting and add a real edge to the competition at a time in the season where on occasion things can get a little mundane if one side is running away with the league.
We at Fifteen Rugby are great fans of the play offs, however the argument that the play offs also help to compensate sides that lost players in the international windows by effectively allowing them to drop a few points is folly. It is all well and good for the top sides, where, yes, they can still win the league by finishing fourth. However what about the bottom end of the table? They still lose players to international rugby, and yet there is no play off to â€˜compensateâ€™.
Rugby is often to be found preaching its virtues to football, but perhaps here there is one area where rugby can learn from the round ball game. When internationals are being played, suspend your league games. It simply is not fair on the teams who nurture talent that progresses to international rugby, only to then be forced to play matches that are vital to their success or survival without that talent.
Nevertheless, there is a full Aviva Premiership schedule this weekend and some exciting games are set to take place, including a couple of very interesting matches this evening.
Worcester played Leicester at home and were Â desperately searching for an inspirational win that could mount a late season saving charge, an inspired Chris Pennell ran Tigers ragged but it was not quite enough as the visitors left as the victors, 23-22. After a performance like that though, Worcester could easily still take the inspiration that they so desired.
Sale meanwhile hosted Gloucester up at the AJ Bell, before the game it was targeted as a very winnable one for Sale and so it proved as they edged to a narrow 24-19 victory over the Cherry & Whites, leaving Gloucester still in a desperate struggle to find some consistent form.
On Saturday Newcastle travel away to a Bath side who have the welcome addition of George Ford, Anthony Watson, and Kyle Eastmond in their side after those three missed out on England selection, while London Irish face a daunting trip away to Saracens. Saracens might have a huge number of players on international duty, however the depth of their squad is such that you would expect them to be able to absorb it against London Irish.
On Saturday evening Northampton Saints travel to Sandy Park to face Exeter Chiefs for what will arguably be the game of the weekend. Saints will be without their international stars but their form and momentum is such that it might not matter, however few sides travel to Sandy Park and beat Exeter, particularly not an Exeter side who have retained almost all of their players.
On Sunday we are delighted to announce that the latest addition to the Fifteen Rugby team, Rhiannon Chandler-Day, will be giving her thoughts on the weekendâ€™s action from the Twickenham Stoop, where Harlequins will be hosting London Wasps for a fascinating game. You can follow Rhiannon on Twitter, @RhiannonCDayÂ ,Â and do take the time to have a look at her blog, with her own unique take on the rugby world.
Despite reservations over whether the Premiership should or should not be running during the international window, it certainly seems clear that this could be a fascinating weekend.
Saracens and Northampton are streets ahead at the top of the table, but with their internationals missing, will the others be able to catch them up a little? Bath look likely to at least get slightly closer given the difference in form between them and Newcastle.
Then there is Harlequins. A good win over Wasps will make their position in the top four a little more secure. Lose though, and the High Wycombe based side will leapfrog the 2011 Champions.
Aviva Premiership Fixtures & Predictions (Predictions in bold):
Friday 19.45 Worcester Warriors 22-23Â Leicester Tigers
Friday 20.00 Sale Sharks 24-19Â Gloucester
Saturday 15.00 Bath v Newcastle Falcons
Saturday 15.00 Saracens v London Irish
Saturday 19.00 Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints
Sunday 13.00 Harlequins v London Wasps
What do you think about Aviva Premiership fixtures being played during the Six Nations, should it be stopped or is it more a case of everyoneâ€™s in the same boat so thereâ€™s no problem? Do you agree with our predictions? Let us know what your thoughts are via the comment box below or via @FifteenRugbyXV
By Angus Savage