Gallagher Premiership: Exeter Chiefs vs Bristol Bears headlines; East Midlands derby cancelled

We look ahead to the weekend’s round of Gallagher Premiership fixtures, as the top two face off in Exeter vs Bristol, while the East Midlands Derby is cancelled…

Friday

Bath vs Wasps (7.45pm)

The first Premiership meeting of this weekend’s round of fixtures, sees two of last season’s semi-finalists face off in Bath and Wasps at the Rec.

While Wasps are sat fifth in the table after three wins from five games, however, Bath are languishing down in ninth after just a solitary victory, in addition to a further Covid-19 ‘win’ over London Irish.

Victory at home to Wasps is imperative for Bath to get back on track and with the season still in its early stages a run into the top four is still more than doable.

Bath Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper makes just the one change to the side that faced Leicester five days ago with Tom de Glanville coming in at full-back.

With the 21-year-old back in the starting XV, Anthony Watson moves to the wing, replacing Semesa Rokoduguni.

Wasps head coach Lee Blackett has made one personnel change to his starting starting 15 too, coming off the back of his side’s impressive victory over Exeter Chiefs last time out.

Thomas Young comes back into the starting side at openside flanker. That move sees Jack Willis switch to No 8, replacing brother Tom Willis, who shifts to the bench.

Sale vs Worcester (8pm)

Sale head coach Paul Deacon makes just one change to his matchday squad as Josh Beaumont returns at No 8 to make his first start for the Sharks after 14 months on the sidelines.

Academy prospect Bevan Rodd continues to impress the Sale coaching team at loosehead prop and is rewarded with yet another Premiership start. 20-year-old Rodd is surrounded by South African talent as Akker van der Merwe and Coenie Oosthuizen line up alongside him in the front row with Cobus Wiese and JP du Preez providing power behind them in the second row.

Warriors, meanwhile, are fresh from announcing the signing of superb Edinburgh and now Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe, and off the back of a Covid-19 presented ‘victory’ over Harlequins last time out, handing them four precious points.

Before those priceless points, Worcester had lost five games in a row between the Premiership and Challenge Cup, leaving them bottom of the Premiership – they have since leapfrogged Gloucester.

Former England full-back Chris Pennell comes in for his first Premiership appearance of the season, with Melani Nanai been ruled out by a hamstring injury sustained in training.

Oli Morris starts in the centre in the other change to the back division that played in the Boxing Day match against Northampton Saints. England international Ollie Lawrence misses out with a shoulder injury.

The third enforced change in the backs is at fly-half where Duncan Weir will start in place of Billy Searle who misses out because of a calf injury.

There are also two changes in the pack with Anton Bresler returning to partner Justin Clegg in the second row. Former England international Matt Kvesic, who was a late withdrawal against Northampton due to sickness, is fit and returns at openside with Marco Mama switching to No 8.

Saturday

Newcastle Falcons vs Gloucester (2pm)

Gary Graham returns for Newcastle Falcons on Saturday as they host Gloucester. The in-form back-row scored two tries in the Falcons’ opening-day victory at Bath and featured strongly in victories over Wasps and Sale Sharks. Tom Penny also returns following injury at Wasps in round three.

Brett Connon returns at fly-half as Toby Flood slides across to inside-centre, Argentina international Matias Orlando pushing out to the No 13 shirt following his debut at Bristol last Friday.

That game brought a first league loss of the season, director of rugby Dean Richards taking little solace in the 29-17 defeat despite his side applying pressure for large sections of the game.

Richards said: “We had the dominance upfront, the territory and the possession, and we should have nailed it. We didn’t, though, and we have to take it on the chin.

“I’ve had people during the week telling us we played well, but we set high standards here, and if you’d been in that changing room after the game you’d have seen a group of really disappointed players.”

Turning attention to Saturday’s opponents Gloucester, the Falcons boss is not falling into the trap of underestimating them.

“It’s amazing that Gloucester haven’t started well when you look at their team on paper, and there’s no doubting the fact they pose a threat,” he said.

“It’s going to be freezing cold, there’s been a bit of snow in the build-up and we’ll have to see what the weather throws up.”

Bottom of the league Gloucester have made three changes to the starting 15 that lost to Sale last time out. Joe Simpson, Matias Alemanno and Matt Garvey all come into the starting 15 with Argentina back Santiago Carreras set to make his Cherry and White debut off the bench.

“Newcastle have had an outstanding start back in the Premiership and they are a well organised team who play really good rugby and I take my hat off to them. Their set piece is very good and they play to their strengths,” Gloucester head coach George Skivington said.

“They’ve come up angry with a point to prove and it shows in their performances. I don’t think Newcastle’s frame of mind will have changed from where it was from when they first came up.”

Exeter Chiefs vs Bristol Bears (4.30pm)

Table-toppers and defending champions Exeter face the second-placed Bears on Saturday at Sandy Park, with both sides on 20 points after five games.

Chiefs’ director of rugby Rob Baxter revealed Exeter have had positive coronavirus tests in the camp ahead of this weekend’s round six clash.

“We have had some positive tests, but that is as far as I can say on that really. That’s had a slight impact on the availability of players but not huge. We’ve selected a team that looks very good.

“When we have anything in the camp Covid-wise, we always try to organise a second round of testing.

“That will just ensure when we take to the field we can, with that 100 per cent confidence, know we are not risking transmitting anything to Bristol.”

Bristol boss Pat Lam says he is relishing the prospect of Saturday’s “massive challenge” in the trip to Sandy Park.

“I have a lot of respect for Exeter and what Rob has done,” Lam said. “It was a wonderful achievement to do the double.

“I love playing against these guys. They are tough encounters. Every (Exeter) game I have been involved in since I have been at Bristol has been a one-score fixture and gone right down to the wire.”

Exeter suffered their first defeat of the league campaign last weekend, losing 34-5 with a much-changed team against Wasps.

But Lam added: “I am expecting the reinforcements to be back – their strongest team. It is a massive challenge for us and one we are excited by. I love playing the games when there is a lot riding on them.

“Both clubs are sitting on 20 points and the winner goes into Europe next week sitting on top of the Premiership.

“If we want to get a taste of playing Exeter in a Champions Cup final or a Premiership final, we are going to get a taste of it this week.”

Northampton C-C Leicester Tigers

On Wednesday, Northampton Saints confirmed that the East Midlands derby against Leicester Tigers on Saturday had been cancelled after the club returned a number of positive tests, and had further players unavailable for selection following the Contact Tracing process.

In close consultation with Public Health England, the match was subsequently called off and Saints’ training also cancelled until the next round of testing – scheduled for Monday 11 January, with the players involved having already begun a 10-day isolation period.

“We are incredibly disappointed and frustrated that we are unable to proceed with such an important fixture for the Club,” Director of Rugby Chris Boyd said.

Gutted not to be playing this weekend, but we all have the same end goal.

Stay safe. Be positive. Look after each other.

We'll all be back here soon 🖤💚💛 pic.twitter.com/MIuRrX7MBl

“The East Midlands Derby is a day that Saints supporters will have circled in their calendar months in advance. It’s a game entrenched in history and one our players particularly relish being a part of.

“The Club has been absolutely rigorous in how we have followed the protocols laid out for us, and despite returning a number of positive tests this week, we were confident that we have more than enough of our squad still healthy and available to play the game if required.

“However, we are following the advice we have been given, which was not to play the game and to close our training facility until next week. While this is a bitter pill to swallow, the health and safety of the players, staff and families of everyone at both Saints and Tigers is of course paramount.”

This is the second consecutive match Northampton have seen cancelled due to Covid-19, with positive tests at London Irish also seeing last weekend’s fixture against the Exiles called off – with Saints awarded a win and four league points, and Irish a loss and two league points. Tigers are thus likely to gain four points, and Saints two from this latest cancellation.

Sunday

Harlequins vs London Irish (3pm)

Quins second row Matt Symons returns to fitness to face his former side, with head coach Paul Gustard making six changes to the side that hosted Bristol on Boxing Day.

England international Joe Marler returns to the starting line-up, while Symons returns to fitness for the first time since November and Tom Lawday returns to the starting line-up at blindside flanker.

Scotland’s Scott Steele picks up his first start of the season at scrum-half, while fellow Scottish international James Lang switches from outside-centre to inside-centre as England midfielder Joe Marchant returns to start at 13.

Returning to full fitness, wing Cadan Murley starts in the 11 jersey, with young Louis Lynagh retaining his spot at 14 after impressing in his first Premiership start in defeat to Bristol.

“We were frustrated with our inability to complete the fixture against Worcester last weekend, but on the plus side the team have had the opportunity to be refreshed,” Gustard said.

“The Club took an early and strong decision to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our players and our staff, as well as our opposition, in shutting down all training for a seven day period. We come into this game fit and raring to go.

“London Irish are obviously a local derby game, and a team littered with top overseas international talent. We know we will have to be on top of our game on both sides of the ball to get the result we want this weekend.”

Fort he visitors, prop Ollie Hoskins is set to make his 100th appearance for Irish, having made his debut for the Club back in 2016. Australia international Rob Simmons is also set to make his debut for the Club, if required from the replacements.

“We are excited to get back onto the pitch after the enforced break prevented us from doing so in the last two fixtures” said Declan Kidney, Director of Rugby.

“The enthusiasm to be back is palpable within the group and the players are champing at the bit to run out on Sunday. There’s always an edge to this fixture and we know we’ll need to be at our best against a very good Harlequins side.”

Kidney also spoke to Sky Sports this week about the affect of Covid-19 on rugby and to his squad.

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