It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give his calls. Today, the Aviva Premiership gets assessed.
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The Warriors have won 4/6 games at home by an average of 20-13 and for the past 8 rounds have found themselves in a relatively settled routine of winning at home and losing away. That trend looks in danger though, given their poor record against Leicester. The Tigers have won 13/15 games in the fixture by an average of 30-15 and 5/7 away at Sixways by 24-15, with the last 2 visits yielding 19 and 21 point victories. I'm happy to take the visitors -4 on the handicap and can see James Percival having to add plenty more to that impressive tally of 136 tackles in 12 games. Worcester have only been outscored in 1/6 first halves at home and Leicester have trailed at the break in 6/9 games so perhaps a Warriors penalty to be first scoring play at 2.88, Worcester +2 on the half-time handicap or Worcester half-time / Leicester full-time at 7.0 may appeal. There have been 14 cards shown in the last 7 in this fixture and 8 in the last 3. When you also consider that the previous 3 league games for the respective sides have produced 6 and 11 cards then a sin-bin looks good. JP Doyle gave 2 cards in last term's clash and I'm backing him to repeat that at 3.75. When looking at possible try scorers, David Lemi has 4 in 9 games against this opposition and looks generously priced at 4.5, while the returning Tom Croft needs some attention at 7.5.
The Chiefs have 5 wins and a draw to show from their home league games, by an average of 29-15. They were up against Bath last week, a team they are yet to beat in the top flight and their record against Northampton isn't much better with 4 losses from 5 meetings. The average score in those fixtures has been 18-22 and the last 2 games have seen the Chiefs lose by 3 points, after leading at half-time. The Exeter scrum has only seen a 78% success rate and they are without Brett Sturgess. They lost 3/6 scrums against Bath last week and are up against a Saints set-piece that is firing at 89%. I'm backing a home win by 1-12 points, but with a small play on Exeter half-time / Saints full-time as a 'saver'. Watch out for Richard Baxter who gets better with age - he's made 113 carries (4th) and 118 tackles (3rd).
Never one to mince his words, Brian Smith sounded off about a number of issues this week - accusations of former coaches sniffing around his players, of unnamed teams breaching the salary cap, tapping up players and an admittance that his side was talented but lacked confidence and a hard edge. Not a good time to be playing a Gloucester team loaded with those two qualities then. The Cherry and Whites have won 5/6 home game by an average of 23-16 and London Irish have lost 6/6 away matches by 11-30. Expanding that away record, it's 22 defeats from 26 games outside of the Madejski Stadium. Gloucester have won 16/18 games at home to the Exiles by 26-15 and carried out a 44 point demolition over them in the ACC recently. On that basis, I'm comfortable taking the big looking -11 handicap The last 3 meetings have seen more than 62 points and the last 8 have produced 17 cards so both of those markets could prove lucrative. Gloucester have scored 8/19 tries between 61-80 minutes and the visitors are yet to score in that period but have conceded 16/31 tries, so there is scope for it to get ugly late on. Back-row forward Akapusi Qera has scored a superb 15 tries in 40 home league games and is usually reasonably priced to get over the line.
London Welsh's campaign began with heavy losses to Leicester and Harlequins and they face those sides again in upcoming rounds, followed by Sale and 4 consecutive away matches. I am not convinced they are out of the relegation battle (available at 8.0 to go down) and losing by 19 points to Wasps may herald the start of a bad run. The visitors won by 37 points in the previous clash and have won 9/12 games this season by 27-21, with victories in 4/6 away games by 27-25. They have made 1508 passes to the hosts' 1002 and carried for 4466 metres to their opponents' 3321. Crucially they have also scored 29 tries while the Exiles have conceded 30. London Welsh haven't scored more than 19 points in a game since Round 6 and while scoring 16 points at home is enough to beat London Irish and Bath who don't travel well, I don't see it being enough against the champions. Quins have made a number of changes and are without both Ugo Monye and Mike Brown who were the chief architects of the Round 2 win, however Ollie Lindsay-Hague and Sam Smith are just as likely to cause problems. Will also be interesting to see how Charlie Matthews, an U20 peer of Joe Launchbury gets on, against the abrasive Jonathan Mills. The inclusion of youth isn't going to put me off backing the impressive Quins on the -9 handicap though.
If there is 'something special' happening at Saracens then how to describe the situation at Sale? A season of new grounds for both sides and that isn't the only link between them. Steve Diamond was first rugby manager then coach at Sarries in 2004 and brought with him Kevin Yates, Alex Sanderson and many others. That stint didn't last long and via Russia, Dimes was back in Sale again in 2011. He sacked Tony Hanks after a 9-45 beating from Saracens and given the chaotic nature at the club, the mind boggles at how he would react to a similar loss now. Fire himself perhaps? The hosts have won 9/12 games by an average of 20-14 which compares favourably to Sale's 2 wins from 12 games by 15-27. The Sharks also travel poorly, losing all 6 away matches by 11-31 and 37 of the previous 44 outings by 16-29. Saracens carried for over 500m in the previous meeting and managed just the 1 try but I think they may be more ruthless this time and with the Sharks conceding 11/27 tries in the final 20 minutes, the damage could come late on. Sarries have only averaged 14 points scored in league games Owen Farrell has started at fly-half compared to 27 with Charlie Hodgson there, but the strength of opposition has to be considered (Farrell faced Leicester, Exeter, Quins, Saints). I think his record will improve here and I will be looking at the home side's 11-20 point winning margin for Saracens at Vicarage Road.
Wasps vs BathWasps currently sit in 5th place, with their ability to pick up bonus points (9 from 12 games) greatly assisting their ambitions. They have won 7 of their previous 8 home games and 5/5 this season by an average of 24-14. Bath have lost 4/6 away matches by 15-19 and 12/16 by 13-19 so it may appear to be a home banker for Dai Young. However, Bath have a decent record away at Wasps, with 12 wins and a draw from 25 visits and victories in 3 of the last 4. It would seem to be a clash of contrasting styles with Wasps carrying for 4233m so far compared to 3103 from Bath and making 107 offloads to 49. But then again Bath outscored Wasps by 3 tries to 2 when the sides met in September. Bath will be well aware of the threat offered by the Wasps wingers, Christan Wade carried for over 170m in that Round 2 game, while Tom Varndell has scored 8 tries in 15 games against them. I'm backing Wasps by 1-10 in this game but think Bath will triumph in their next couple of games, at home to London Irish and Worcester, which will keep them involved in the Aviva Premiership's top 6 race.