The short side: Must-watch games, Marcus Smith hunger, Nemani Nadolo back and Henry Slade experiment

·8-min read
 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 and United Rugby Championship.

Premiership game to watch – Harlequins v Leicester Tigers

With a tough weekend behind both teams in the Champions Cup, the champions elect meet the champion real, with the added bonus of a direct head-to-head between the best two fly-halves in England, George Ford and Marcus Smith.

The last fixture between these two standard bearers of English rugby was particularly close, as a packed Welford Road saw their beloved Tigers triumph 16-14, courtesy of a Harry Potter try, engineered by Ford. Only a missed conversion by Smith of his own late try prevented the visitors from coming away with reward for the efforts and this weekend will be equally as close.

The match is likely to be one of contrasting styles; the power and pragmatism of the Tigers set-piece versus the attacking intent of the Harlequins backline. Leicester will look to build upon their epic European win over Clermont last weekend, whilst Quins will be looking to avenge a defeat at the hands of Montpellier that many believe might have had a different outcome had the officiating been more on point.

The common wisdom appears to be that whichever of the half-back pairings on view comes out on top will win the game but looking at the teams on paper we believe they will cancel each other out, but that Leicester might just have the lineout edge to pull off a surprise at the Stoop; with 37% of all Premiership tries coming from a no-pass lineout move this season, they have the specialists in the back-row that might just make a difference.

But with Harlequins desperate to make the play-offs to defend their crown as current champions, we see this as a narrow victory for the hosts, with the added spice of their European loss driving them to a one score win.

United Rugby Championship game to watch – Ulster v Munster

Second placed Ulster host fourth placed Munster in a URC top-of-the-table clash that has a delightful symmetry with our other featured game. Munster managed to put away a very powerful Exeter side over two legs in Europe, whilst a doughty Ulster eventually capitulated by a short head to the perennial stars of the European stage, Toulouse.

Both teams will come into the game battered and bruised from their European campaigns, and both in something near indifferent form, despite Ulster’s narrow victory against Leinster a month ago.

It’s likely to be a battle decided up front, with Ulster prop Marty Moore bullish about his side’s chances.

“It is about getting the mental side of things right and making sure we are fresh and ready to go,” he said.

“The Stormers game and the Toulouse game at the weekend… as devastating as it is in the moment for what the loss means, when we look at the performances in those games it is not disheartening. And it doesn’t weigh on the squad in that regard.

“We feel that we are performing well enough to beat big sides and do well and crack on but we just haven’t got the results.”

Munster, despite their success versus Exeter, are also in something close to disappointing form, with losses against Leinster, Lions and Bulls punctuated only by a thrashing of Benetton at home. But they can take the confidence of both their European form and the form of fly-half Joey Carbery into the fixture with them. It’ll be a race to the wire, but one with many hurdles along the way.

Player to watch – Marcus Smith (Harlequins)

After a heart-breaking 60-59 aggregate negative to Montpellier last weekend that came down to a missed conversion from Smith, the Harlequins playmaker will be disappointed in himself and will look to learn from that experience. However, there is no time for the fly-half to step back and reflect as come Saturday, Quins will play host to the Premiership leading Tigers. Smith finding a rhythm early on, unhindered by last week’s mistake, will be crucial for Tabai Matson’s side at the Stoop.

This game could end up being crucial to the hosts, who are looking to secure a home advantage for the play-offs, as a win could put them level with Saracens, who sit in second place on 72 points – this would only happen if their London rivals lost their home clash with Exeter Chiefs. The Stoop has been sold out for every single Premiership game this season so a home play-off tie could help push Quins into the finals once again where Smith and company would back themselves.

It’s worth mentioning that despite having that obvious slip-up at the end of the second Montpellier leg, Smith was key in the comeback launched by the Quins as he pulled the strings in attack, playing a vital role in Joe Marchant’s unbelievable team try in the corner with his sleight of hand and trademark goose step in a move that began well inside Harlequins’ 22. Expect more of the same from the England international this weekend as he is not one to fall out of form for long.

One-v-one battle to watch – Louis Lynagh (Harlequins) v Nemani Nadolo (Leicester)

Whilst all the Quins v Tigers headlines will be focused on the Ford-Smith battle at fly-half, the sub-headlines involving the wing battle between Lynagh and Nadolo is one we’re relishing.

Eddie Jones’ selectorial policy may have come under huge scrutiny in recent times, but it’s safe to say that whilst many positions are sewn up in terms of options, there’s still a few glaring gaps he needs to fill. A proper finishing wing is one of those, but it’s safe to say in Club England that defence and aerial skill are just as important as outright gas.

In Lynagh, Quins have a player that potentially ticks all three boxes; he’s quick and elusive, but incredibly brave and effective in his defending duties. Just like his old man, he’ll back down at nothing and it’s clear the Lynagh rugby IQ hasn’t fallen very far from this particular tree, as young Louis fuses real precision in attack with the ability to take on any defence in the outside channels.

Against Nadolo, his D will be examined to the max and Saturday will be a Litmus test of his ability against the big wings of the southern hemisphere that will give us a clear picture of how he has progressed.

Subplot to watch – How will Henry Slade go at 10?

With Saracens hosting Exeter Chiefs in a crucial game for Rob Baxter’s men, it surprised many to see that Slade is slated to start at his old England U20 position of fly-half.

Slade has been his usual reliable self for Exeter in the centres, but after a promising November Tests display in the white shirt of England, his Six Nations form fell off a cliff as he failed to adapt to the key role of 12 either as a runner or secondary playmaker. In short, he fell between two stools, having neither the direct running nor the strategic vision to settle down in either of the traditional styles of an inside centre, and spent the entire Six Nations crabbing sideways, looking uncomfortable in his selected role and unable to make any form of impact.

Slade’s international career is at somewhat of a crossroads – it’s clear that he’s not able to deliver the role needed at 12, he drifts in and out of games at 13, defends at Test level primarily as a full-back over and above a three-quarter and this latest move appears to be capable of only creating more confusion for a supremely talented player.

He’ll be up against his England teammate and former skipper, the iron figure of Saracens’ Owen Farrell, who’ll want to remind everyone of his comeback from injury. It’s ironic that both are playing for a berth in the England centres, yet both start at 10 for their club this weekend. Watch this space.

Best of the rest

Over in the West Country, Premiership play-off hopefuls Gloucester visit Bristol Bears in an attempt to put further pressure on beleaguered head coach Pat Lam, who saw his charges crash out of the Champions Cup and also lost star centre Semi Radradra to add injury to insult. Look out for a sumptuous battle of two uncapped but promising number eights as Fitz Harding’s skill and pace goes head-to-head with the power and abrasion of Ruan Ackermann.

In the URC, Cardiff and Ospreys clash in a traditional local derby that can trace its roots back to the heady days of Welsh club rugby. Whilst both clubs languish at the bottom of the table, they owe it to their loyal supporters to put on a display to prove the validity of the Welsh regional structure, something that’s come under real scrutiny recently.

There’s also big games in South Africa this weekend as the Stormers face Glasgow Warriors, the Bulls look for Rainbow Cup revenge over Benetton, Connacht travel to the Lions while the Sharks take on pace-setters Leinster as the country eyes a clean sweep.

READ MORE: Premiership: Harlequins and Leicester Tigers stacked with talent in pick of the games on Saturday

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