After a two week break for European Professional Club Rugby action, the 2017/18 Aviva Premiership returns with a crunch Friday night clash at Sixways. Worcester Warriors host London Irish in a ‘huge relegation battle’.
All predictions aside, Josh Bartholomew looks closely at the lower end of the table, where relegation is a continual threat for either side.
Their Premiership table positions are denoted by () and this pivotal battle might be in who can grab the handful of points on offer, and gain a lead over their fellow league-strugglers.
11. Worcester Warriors (14 points)
Worcester’s defence is slightly more solid than their relegation rivals, but they have still conceded 279 points. This gives them the third worst defence in the Premiership. Coupled with their defensive ineptitude, the Warriors have scored just 173 points – the least in the Premiership.
In spite of this statistic, Worcester have improved going forward in recent rounds; They scored 30 and 31 points against Northampton and Leicester respectively.
Worcester Warriors began the season without their star player, Francois Hougaard (see main picture), who was serving South Africa in The Rugby Championship. Australian fly-half Jono Lance has also arrived at Sixways, which has gone some way towards solving the Warriors’ struggles in the pivot position.
12. London Irish (8 points)
Irish’s season so far has been haunted by an inability to start games well. Before the season began, you’d have thought their problem would have been towards the end of games; a year playing at the Greene King IPA Championship’s lower intensity and speed has a big impact.
Another hindrance in Irish’s Premiership campaign so far has been their defence. With a senior squad containing just one specialist outside centre, teams have capitalised on holes which often pop-up throughout the backline. Rob Horne and Gareth Owen in particular enjoyed their game at the Madejski for Northampton and Leicester respectively.
Conceding an average of 32 points per game, it is a case of ‘holding back the points scored against’ and remember to score a few yourself. However, director of rugby Nick Kennedy is failing on both fronts. How he can resolve this on Friday, will be a contributor to which team is still bottom of the table come New Year’s day.
Returning Backs Boost for Warriors
As already outlined, Worcester Warriors improving attack comes up against Irish’s faltering defence. The Warriors have one of the League’s form attackers in Josh Adams, while Chris Pennell’s return has been welcome.
On the other hand, Fergus Mulchrone recently returned from injury for the Exiles. Mulchrone was a key defensive cog in the machine which dominated the Championship last season, and the centre’s work rate is vital to any potential success.
Show Me Your ‘Playmaker’
Francois Hougaard has recently returned to the Worcester Warriors team, and it is no coincidence that their results have improved. This, coupled with the arrival of fly-half Jono Lance, who has given his side the tools to dominate territory and possession.
Friday night a case of ‘show me your playmaker, & I’ll show you mine’.
London Irish’s playmakers are slightly more settled, although they have been less effective. Australian scrum-half Ben Meehan is beginning to get to grips with Premiership life. However Kennedy has struggled to pick between Tommy Bell and James Marshall in the fly-half position.
Tommy Bell is more solid and offers a better kicking game, but Marshall can threaten a defensive line like few others. In recent weeks, Kennedy has plumped for Bell at 10 with Marshall at 15, but Greig Tonks’ quality display against Stade Francais last weekend could persuade him to give the Scotsman the nod at 10.
That could see the London team find a balance between attack and defence.
Forwards Challenge without Paice
Worcester boast an experienced pack, including Scottish international David Denton and veteran Donncha O’Callaghan. If the Warriors can get front-foot ball from their forwards, it’s highly likely that their backline will be able to cause Irish no end of issues.
On the other side, Irish have welcomed quality international forwards Gordon Reid and Saia Fainga’a back from injury. Despite those positives, talismanic hooker David Paice will remain suspended for the Worcester clash, which is a blow for the Exiles.
All being well though, Irish will be able to field the same back row for the first time since they destroyed Harlequins at Twickenham. The challenge is certainly there, with the Aviva relegation battle looming large in the background.
Worcester Warriors v London Irish – Prediction
Though Worcester have returned to form in recent weeks, London Irish face the prospect of an 11 point margin if they lose at Sixways. That pressure alone; added to returning key players, may just give the Exiles motivation to pull out a vital victory.
This might be a game of the round – for more reasons than just the on-field challenges.
“Main photo credit”
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