The short side: Big games, Courtney Lawes returns and full-back battle

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 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the Premiership, United Rugby Championship and the Women’s Six Nations.

Premiership game to watch – Northampton Saints v Harlequins

For the lovers of champagne rugby, it’s time to get the bubbly out, as two of the most stylish attacking teams in the Prem meet each other in a thrilling third place plays fourth place clash. Sure, Quins hold the advantage here and mathematically, a bonus points win will see them home and hosed into the play-offs.

For Saints, they’re part of a compressed pack that include Exeter and Gloucester that share a point between them, but with the Chiefs having played one more game than the others.

There’s no doubt about the attacking talent on view in this match; Saints have direct runners and gas to burn in a back division that’s marshalled by the brilliant Alex Mitchell at scrum-half. Quins match them man for man in that area, but crucially, their scrummage is as good as any in the competition.

The head to heads are legion – three current England Test back-rows go up against each other with Saints possibly having the advantage with Courtney Lawes returning from a nasty thumb injury.

But what we do know is that this game isn’t going to be short of points or excitement- for Quins, they can finish it off and qualify in this game, with the knowledge they have a home fixture against Gloucester in Round 25 as a safety net. For Saints, they simply must win this one; with Saracens away next round and Newcastle at home in the last, they need a minimum of 10 points to ensure qualification. They come into this game bursting with confidence as they go searching for a fifth successive win.

With all to play for, a fast surface and a packed Franklins Gardens, this is a match that promises to be a treat for all who see it.

United Rugby Championship game to watch – Stormers v Leinster

The big one in the URC is down in Cape Town where the top two sides, Leinster and the Stormers, go head to head in what promises to be a battle to savour.

The Stormers come into this match after a comprehensive win versus Glasgow Warriors last weekend, after a superb display by Damian Willemse saw them win 32-7. Leinster ran out of steam a little against the Sharks, but Leo Cullen’s men need only two points from their remaining campaign to top the URC.

The hosts head into this encounter in a rich vein of form and they have proven difficult to beat on their home patch. The men from the Cape have had a rewarding home stretch so far this season, winning all their matches since early December, but they will be wary of the fact that a win for Leinster will guarantee them the top spot in the standings, which will prove invaluable if they advance to the final.

The Irish giants will also be determined to avoid suffering back-to-back defeats for the first time in the tournament since 2019.

The Stormers have plenty of firepower throughout their ranks with the likes of Willemse, Manie Libbok, Warrick Gelant leading the way on attack in the backline. Gelant’s return to the run-on side is a shot in the arm for the home side as he’s a real threat on attack and has the ability to create space for his team-mates.

Also keep an eye on speedster Leolin Zas, who is the United Rugby Championship’s leading try-scorer with 10 tries so far, as well as number eight Evan Roos, who leads the way for most successful carries in the tournament (110) and defenders beaten (44) alongside Connacht’s Mack Hansen.

Their opponents Leinster have selected an inexperienced side but underestimate them at your peril. Despite leaving the majority of their first choice players at home, the Leinstermen put in a gallant performance against the Sharks last weekend and came close to beating their opponents in Durban.

Cullen has rung the changes to his run-on side for this match with captain Rhys Ruddock, Rory O’Loughlin, Ciarán Frawley, Scott Penny, Brian Deeny, Thomas Clarkson and John McKee the only survivors named to start this week.

Although they will head into this encounter as underdogs, they should still be competitive and the home side can expect a tough battle.

Women’s Six Nations game to watch – France v England

This is it. Four rounds of walkover wins ends here for both sides. Due to savvy tournament scripting, the best game has been saved until the last round in the 2022 Womens’ Six Nations.

Bayonne will play host to perhaps the greatest test match the womens’ game has ever seen when the goliaths of England and France come to town to play for a Grand Slam.

England will roll into the game fresh off a staggering 69-0 victory over Ireland after a second half explosion left the women in green in the dust. Simon Middleton’s side have conceded just 10 points all tournament compared to France’s X. Furthermore, the Red Roses have scored over double the amount of tries (42) as Les Bleus (20) signalling the visitors as obvious favourites for this clash.

Unfortunately however, Middleton has had to select veteran Emily Scarratt as captain due to regular skipper Sarah Hunter picking up a rib injury in the last round’s convincing win. Hunter will be replaced on the back-row by Player of the Tournament candidate Poppy Cleal while Sarah Beckett comes on to the bench.

You could make an argument for nearly everyone on this England side to be Player of the Tournament, but one woman stands out from the rest for France… Laure Sansus has been disgustingly good at scrum-half for France, replicating the success of her male counterpart Antoine Dupont. Her arsenal of tricks up her sleeve have helped her rack up a whopping six tries, four try assists and 16 broken tackles.

England’s defence has been outstanding so far, but Sansus poses a new kind of threat. That being said, England’s squad depth and consistency across the pitch should render them unstoppable, even against the mighty France. This is a fixture we will likely see again in the Rugby World Cup – if we are lucky enough… Hold on to your seats folks, this is going to be a classic.

Player to watch – Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)

Lawes has been around professional rugby longer than iPhones have been in existence.

Maturing from a stripling lock in 2007 into one of the finest blindside flankers in world rugby, the England skipper is simply one of the most effective back five forwards that the Premiership has ever seen. A magnificent lineout forward, a brick wall in defence (and a wholly legal one), his nuisance value at the highest level has been monetised by Northampton Saints, England and the British and Irish Lions for the last 14 years and every game he’s played, he’s delivered with the unassuming pride and steel of commitment that is the hallmark of his game.

A couple of weeks ago, Lawes suffered a compound dislocation of his thumb that his head coach Phil Dowson described as ‘something out of Frankenstein’s Monster.’

Lawes might, to some, seem to be a reluctant captain- but he is a man that leads by peerless personal example- putting his head where others fear to put their feet, carrying, defending, chopping and catching like the technical expert he is. His leadership is one of deeds over words and his teammates rise to the challenges of excellence that he sets them.

He’ll have his work cut out to match the Harlequins pack around the park but expect him to be the man pegged to do a marking job on Quins behemoth centre, Andre Esterhuizen. Franklins Gardens can expect to hear audible tackles as these two giants meet in the midfield and if Saints are to grab the win they need, Lawes’ defence will be central to their cause.

One-v-one battle to watch – Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers) v Charles Piutau (Bristol Bears)

At six foot and five inches tall, Freddie Steward is an impressively built human being and is quickly one of Eddie Jones’ new favourite weapons. Given the lack of depth at full-back and the sheer class of the Leicester full-back, he practically writes himself a place in the England line up.

This week, Steward is faced with former All-Black Charles Piutau to deal with as Leicester look to wipe out Bristol to keep a healthy margin between themselves and Saracens at the top of the table. England’s go-to 15 is very young at 21 for both a Premiership starter and an England international so it will be fascinating to see how the outside-back fares against the experience and danger that Piutau brings to the table.

In terms of tries, it has been a very quiet year for the Bears full-back but don’t let that distract you from the fact he’s approaching the one kilometre mark for meters carried this season with just 71 left to go. Steward will be hard tasked to keep Pat Lam’s dangerman at bay.

Subplot to Watch

Over in the West Country, Gloucester still need to continue their charge to challenge Saints and Exeter as they host Bath at Kingholm. With simple pragmatism and a brilliant driving maul characterising their game, everything good about them starts with their stellar back-row of Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann and Ben Morgan.

At fly-half, Adam Hastings has been working brilliantly with the skilful Mark Atkinson and direct running Chris Harris in midfield, and with serious gas outside them in the shape of Louis Rees-Zammit, Gloucester have firepower to destroy the very best of sides.

Bath have been somewhat reminiscent of France sides of old; you simply don’t know which Bath is going to turn up. Yet their team is littered with giants of the international game and boasts caps in every unit of their team. Despite that, it’s their youngsters that have led their form improvement, with both Max Ojomoh and Orlando Bailey underlining their huge promise in recent weeks.

For a side rooted at the bottom of the table, and with 16 losses out of 21 matches this season, their performances simply do not align with the talent they have at their disposal. Beaten in the dying moments by Saints at the Rec last weekend, they have little to play for other than pride- but this is a local derby and you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be charged up to ruin Gloucester’s hopes.

Best of the rest

In the URC, again we see all four South African sides at home, with the potential for an elusive clean sweep for the Southern Hemisphere. Bulls v Glasgow will be a tight one, refereed by our Expert Witness this week, the wonderful Nika Amashukeli, and with the Lions expected to triumph over Benneton and Sharks over Connacht.

There will also be plenty of interest in the Welsh derby between the Ospreys and Scarlets at Liberty Stadium in Swansea as the home side have named George North on their bench and if he gets onto the pitch it will be the first time he returns to action after a 12-month stint on the sidelines due to a knee injury.

In the Premiership, Saracens head down to Sixways to take on Worcester with Sarries determined to continue with their impressive form as they chase their sixth successive win. It will be a momentous occasion for Sarries number eight Billy Vuniploa, who will make his 150th appearance for the North London outfit.

READ MORE: Premiership: Billy Vunipola hits 150 for Saracens, Matt Kvesic back for Worcester

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