RUGBY betting analyst Christian Murray (@wncomwncobutt) shares his thoughts on Friday night's action.
The exciting, pulsating, and at times mesmeric Six Nations may be over but the rugby keeps on trucking this weekend with a packed card of Super Rugby, Premiership and Pro 14 match-ups.
Personally, I’m happy to see the Premiership and Pro 14 return as the start to the Super Rugby season has been a bit topsy-turvy to say the least, making accurate picks a bit of a lottery (see last week’s selection for proof).
Suffice to say I’m steering clear of the big Friday Super Rugby showdown between the Blues and Highlanders. Focusing on the home nation domestic games, I think I’ve unearthed a good value double.
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints | Friday 22nd March 2019, 19:45 | BT Sport
First up, it’s off to Welford Road for the East Midland derby between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints.
After a poor start to the season and three defeats in their last four matches, Leicester are now at risk of getting themselves embroiled in the relegation battle that’s ensuing between Newcastle and Worcester at the foot of the table. A team like Leicester should have one eye on the top four, but now find themselves keeping an eye over their shoulders. The Tigers are only nine points in credit to rock-bottom Newcastle.
It has been a frustrating season to say the least for Leicester – blighted by injuries and losing key players to England camp has made it difficult to build up momentum and consistency.
There are the main reasons why Leicester currently find themselves in the position they do. Well that, the Matt O’Connor farce and impact at the start of the season. So with good news from the treatment room and the fact that his England stars are returning unscathed and in good form, Geordan Murphy can afford himself to believe that maybe his and Leicester’s fortunes could be about to change.
Leicester need to start winning and soon in order to put some daylight between them and the bottom teams, whilst also resurrecting their outside chances of a play-off place.
Personally, I think that will start on Friday night.
Still currently awaiting team announcements, there’s no doubt that Geordan will recall all of the internationals back into the team. So expect to see Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi, George Ford, Jonny May, Ellis Genge and Dan Cole to play some if not all of the 80 for the Tigers.
Add to that the expected return from injury of influential centre Matt Toomua alongside other backs Gareth Owen, Sam Harrison, Ben White and forward Mike Fitzgerald and that’s a very strong 23 man squad. Strong enough to cause hardships for the likes of Saracens and Gloucester, let alone Northampton Saints.
Actually, the last time Leicester fielded such a strong match day squad was back in late December and early January when they put Gloucester, Saints and Harlequins to the sword in consecutive home matches.
Don’t be fooled by the Premiership Rugby Cup final result last week that saw Northampton win their first bit of silverware for over seven years. Saracens had been using the competition to give 1st XV game time and exposure to a lot of academy players. The final was treated no differently by Saracens, whereas Northampton picked pretty much a 1st XV.
We need to rewind to the game before against Bristol to find out why I think Northampton will struggle on Friday evening. For all their attacking endeavour they still look very vulnerable defensively. Bristol exposed them time and again in the first-half by winning the ball on their own terms, recycling quickly, running good lines and exposing soft shoulders on the outside which allowed them to offload repeatedly.
Once in behind the Northampton scramble defence really struggled to contain Bristol. As a result, Bristol were able to convert 85% of their first-half line breaks into tries.
Take Taqele Naiyaravoro the Northampton wing for example. Great going forward with ball in hand. Defensively however, all over the place. With Tuilagi and Toomua possibly at centre, expect several line breaks, some audacious offloads and several Leicester tries.
Edinburgh v Leinster | Friday 22nd March 2019, 19:35 | Premier Sports
Next we are north of the border and to Murrayfield where I think an out-of-sorts Edinburgh can upset the form book and spring a surprise on Leinster.
Edinburgh’s form during this Six Nations window has left them seven points adrift of third placed Ulster in the pool. Where some teams (Benetton and Connaught) have coped and profited with the international exodus of players, Edinburgh in comparison have been pretty abysmal.
Without their Scottish stars and a few injuries Edinburgh have really struggled to re-produce any of the form that saw them top their group in the European Cup and go seven matches unbeaten in both the Pro 14 and European Cup between December and Janiary.
We have seen abject performances against Southern Kings and Cardiff in recent weeks, lacking the continuity, passion and physicality usually associated with Richard Cockerill’s team.
I firmly believe that Cockerill knows his team is at critical juncture and these next two weeks could make or break Edinburgh’s season. Like last year, all the talk of progress and a good start could come to nothing if they lose the next two.
A loss against Leinster on Friday and results elsewhere could make it extremely difficult to make the play-offs in the Pro 14. A loss against Munster next week, will see them eliminated from the European Cup. Mr Cockerill has alluded to this in a recent newspaper article, admitting that four of the remaining Pro 14 games have to be won if they are to have any chance of getting back into the play-off picture.
Cockerill will also be glad that the returning cavalry of Scottish internationals will be fit and firing after the Calcutta Cup comeback last weekend. As the squad depth is a lot more limited than their opponents, the home boss won’t have the luxury to rest many bodies. So we can expect the likes of Darcy Graham, Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson and WP Nel all to start. Add to that the long-awaited return from injury of the superb John Barclay (his first game since signing) and the back row looks very strong.
Leinster, on the other hand, have already secured their place in the play-offs and I believe that selection for this game will prove that they have their sights fixed firmly on next week’s all-Irish quarter-final European Cup clash with Ulster.
In all likelihood the returning Irish internationals with the exception of maybe Sean O Brian and Sean Cronin will be rested for the trip to Murrayfield. The team will consist mainly of second string players, but then again, it has for the majority of the season and they’ve been too good for most teams.
However, on this occasion I feel that Edinburgh have more on the line here and that will probably play out in the approach and intensity the two teams bring. Cockerill will have his players up for this as he knows that a win keeps the play off ambitions alive and give some much needed confidence for the European tie next weekend.
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints
Edinburgh v Leinster
Leicester Tigers and Edinburgh -2 handicap double (9/5 SpreadEx)