Archive for the ‘GP’ Category

Squads complete for new Premiership season.

Like the nations players I’ve been enjoying a well earned off-season break from rugby for the last few weeks, but am now back into pre-season…

The newly branded Aviva Premiership will kick off on the 4th of September, and now all transfers have been completed here’s a list of who’s gone where:

BATH
INS: Ross Batty (Rotherham), Lewis Moody (Leicester), Sam Vesty (Leicester), Mark McMillan (Glasgow), Tom Biggs (Leeds Carnegie), Simon Taylor (Stade Français).
OUTS: Daniel Browne (Leeds Carnegie), Joe Maddock (Treviso), Julian Salvi (Brumbies), Michael Stephenson (Leeds Carnegie), Ryan Davis (Exeter), Rob Hawkins (Leicester), Mike Baxter (Released), Matt Spelman (Released), Rhys Crane (Released), Nicky Little (Bristol).

EXETER
INS: Luke Arscott (Bristol Rugby), Garrick Cowley (Esher), Ryan Davis (Bath), Ignacio Elosu (Viadana), Eoghan Grace (Shannon), Andrew Higgins (Unattached), James Phillips (Bristol Rugby), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay), Jon Vickers (Northampton), Chris Whitehead (London Welsh).
OUTS: Tom Bedford (Bedford Blues), Richard Bolt (Bristol Rugby), Sam Blythe (Taunton), Matt Cornwell (Northampton Saints), Toby Freeman (Ordizia), Danny Gray (unattached), Shane Kingsland (Manawatu), Steve Jones (Unattached), Emyr Lewis (retired), Sean Marsden (Bristol Rugby), Alan Miller (Unattached), Saul Nelson (London Welsh), Clive Stuart-Smith (Esher), Sean Tomes (Bedford Blues).

GLOUCESTER
INS: Matt Cox (Worcester Warriors), Brett Deacon (Leicester Tigers), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh).
OUTS: Jake Boer (Retired), Marco Bortolami (Aironi), Gareth Delve (Melbourne Rebels), Adam Eustace (Northampton), Ben Phillips (Birmingham & Solihull), Apo Satala (Sale), Greg Somerville (Melbourne Rebels), Semi Tadulala (Leeds Carnegie), Andy Williams (Worcester).

HARLEQUINS
INS: Maurie Fa’asavalu (St Helens RL), Joe Gray (Northampton), Tom Casson (Saracens), Dave Moore (Leinster), Ollie Smith (Montpellier), Benjamin Urdapilleta (Pampas XV).
OUTS: Gonzalo Tiesi (Stade Français), Steve So’oialo (Released), Waisea Luveniyali (Released), Aston Croall (Sale), Tani Fuga (Retired), Seb Jewell (Wasps), Dan Frazier (Released), Tosh Masson (Released), Jim Evans (Retired), Neil McMillan (Released), Josh Drauniniu (London Welsh).

LEEDS CARNEGIE
INS: Steve Thompson (Brive), Lachlan MacKay (Brive), Sean Hohneck (Viadana), Miguel Alonso (Viadana), Warren Fury (Wasps), Christian Lewis-Pratt (Northampton), Jesus Moreno Rodriguez (Bordeaux-Begles), Daniel Browne (Bath), Michael Stephenson (Bath), Semi Tadulala (Gloucester), James Tincknell (Wharfedale).
OUTS: Peter Bucknall (Leicester), Scott Armstrong (Northampton), Calum Clark (Northampton), Joe Ford (Northampton), Erik Lund (Biarritz Olympique), Seru Rabeni (La Rochelle), Villa Ma’asi (London Welsh), Jonny Hepworth (Rotherham), Richard Welding (Rotherham), Joe Bedford (Released), Jason Strange (Released), Rob Rawlinson (Retired), Alex Moreno (Retired), Andy Gomarsall (Retired).

LEICESTER
INS: Thomas Waldrom (Crusaders), George Skivington (Wasps), Lee Robinson (Bristol), Rob Hawkins (Bath), Horacio Agulla (Brive).
OUTS: Scott Bemand (Retired), Lewis Moody (Bath), Sam Vesty (Bath), Johne Murphy (Munster), Harry Ellis (Retired), Ben Kay (Retired), Brett Deacon (Gloucester), Mefin Davies (Ospreys), Robbie Harris (Montauban), Aaron Mauger (Retired), Greig Tonks (Northampton).

LONDON IRISH
INS: Darren Allinson (Cardiff Blues), Guy Armitage (Wellington College), Daniel Bowden (Canterbury Crusaders), Brian Blaney (Leinster), Sam Edgerley (Wellington College), Marland Yarde (Whitgift School).
OUTS: Danie Coetzee (Retired), Charlie Gower (Released), Peter Hewat (Suntory), Andy Perry (Released), John Rudd (Retired), Peter Richards (Retired).

LONDON WASPS
INS: Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues), Richard Haughton (Saracens), James Cannon (Northampton), Seb Jewell (Harlequins), Charlie Davies (Stade Français), Nic Berry (Racing Metro), Riki Flutey (Brive).
OUTS: George Skivington (Leicester), Hugo Elllis (Dragons), Arthur Ellis (Dragons), Paul Sackey (Toulon), Dan Leo (Bordeuax-Begles), Danny Cipriani (Melbourne Rebels), Lachlan Mitchell (Melbourne Rebels), Lee Smith (Leeds Rhinos RL), Eoghan Hickey (Released), Daniel Bocca (Released), Mark Robinson (Retired), Warren Fury (Leeds Carnegie).

NEWCASTLE
INS: Luke Eves (Bristol), Darren Fearn (Northumbria University), Luke Fielden (Bedford), James Fitzpatrick (Blaydon), Joe Graham (Tynedale), James Hall (Coventry), Andrew Henderson (Montauban), Joel Hodgson (RGS Newcastle), Ally Hogg (Edinburgh), Jeremy Manning (Munster), Redford Pennycook (Bristol), Glen Townson (Doncaster), Mark Wilson (Blaydon), Paul Moriarty (Assistant Coach), Richard Arnold (Academy Manager).
OUTS: Adam Balding (Worcester), Tom Biggs (Bath), Peter Browne (Harlequins), Spencer Davey (Retired), Carl Hayman (Toulon), Chris Micklewood (Brive), Rob Miller (Sale), Laurence Ovens (Bedford), Mark Sorenson (Northampton), Alex Walker (Esher).

NORTHAMPTON
INS: Tom Mercey (Saracens), Adam Eustace (Gloucester), Ryan Powell (Worcester), Tom Wood (Worcester), Mark Sorenson (Newcastle), Ryan Glynn (Sale Sharks), Scott Armstrong (Leeds Carnegie), Calum Clark (Leeds Carnegie), Joe Ford (Leeds Carnegie), Matt Cornwell (Exeter Chiefs), Stuart Commins (Cape Town University), Greig Tonks (Leicester).
OUTS: Christian Lewis-Pratt (Leeds Carnegie), James Cannon (Wasps), Joe Gray (Harlequins), Neil Best (Worcester), Juandre Kruger (Blue Bulls), Jon Vickers (Exeter), John Brake (Released), Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (Retired), Mark Hopley (Retired), Scott Gray (Retired), Barry Everitt (Retired), Chris Mayor (Retired), Joe Gray (Retired), Darren Morris (Retired), Alan Dickens (Retired), Santiago Bonorino (Retired).

SALE SHARKS
INS: Aston Croall (Harlequins), Matty James (Manawatu), Kyle Tonetti (Leinster), Mike Petri (New York Athletic Club), Rob Miller (Newcastle Falcons), Wame Lewaravu (Parma), Paul Williams (Auckland Blues), Karena Wihongi (Bourgoin), Mikaele Pesamino (Auckland), Chris Brightwell (Birmingham & Solihull), Iain Thornley (Wigan Warriors).
OUTS: Dean Schofield (RC Toulon), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Luke Abraham (Lyon), Brent Cockbain (Retired), David Doherty (Rugby League), Rob O’Donnell (Rotherham), Oriol Ripol (Worcester Warriors), Lee Thomas (Lyon), Mark Atkinson (London Wasps), Ryan Glynn (Northampton Saints), Ed Styles (Loughborough Students), Alex Shaw (Coventry), James Jones (Released).

SARACENS
INS: Richard Wigglesworth (Sale), Kelly Brown (Glasgow), David Strettle (Harlequins), Nils Mordt (Harlequins), Matt Parr (Nottingham), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Matt Stevens (Unattached).
OUTS: Fabio Ongaro (Aironi), Matias Aguero (Aironi), Michael Owen (Retired), Moses Rauluni (Retired), Richard Haughton (Wasps), Justin Marshall (Retired), Tom Casson (Harlequins), Wikus van Heerden (Golden Lions), Kas Lealamanua (Released), Kevin Sorrell (Retired), Glen Jackson (Retired), Michael Horak (Retired).

Saracens bravery and effort sensational, but not enough

Saracens haven’t been my favourite cup of tea this season. Both Guinness Premiership matches I’ve been too this season have been watching London Irish against Brendan Venter’s side (I’ll point out this is highly out of character, but living in Madrid causes such problems.) The Right Said Fred song, Venter’s attitude, and the frequent discussion of the nationalities of their playing squad have all been topics talked about amongst both supporters and the press this season often from a negative stand point. Yet come the final whistle on Saturday, none of it mattered anymore.

Sarries gave such a brilliant performance at Twickenham against Leicester that all that mattered was how they played, not who was representing them. Glen Jackson in his last game before retirement was simply awesome at 10, complimenting his legendary predecessor in that shirt, Michael Lynagh. His dummy for the first try and a beautiful inside ball at one point to Michael Tagicakibau where complimented by his as always strong tactical and place kicking. His heart and soul where there in every bit of play, especially the kick on 76 minutes which put Sarries ahead by 1. He must have thought then, that the perfect ending was not far off. The same can be said for Ernst Joubert, the number 8 and captain. His two well taken tries capped what has been an incredible first season for the South African. Along with fellow backrower Andy Saull, the young English openside, Saracens have had so many stand out performers this season. Schalk Brits, the Guinness Premiership player of the year springs to mind as well.

All in all, Saracens will only improve next season, given the quality of the signings they have made, the likes of Matt Stevens, David Strettle and Richard Wigglesworth. Whilst they may have been a surprise this season, they will definitely be contenders come the next.

Hero Mike Catt a true rugby legend.

The title above will no doubt be scoffed at by some, but if legendary status is measured by success then here are Mike Catt’s credentials; one World Cup medal, two finals, four in total. Numerous Heineken Cup and Premiership titles. The 2006 Guinness Premiership Player of the Year. 75 Caps for England, including captaining his adopted country, plus appearances for the British & Irish Lions. There were Grand Slams too, in fact his versatility in an England shirt saw him play in nearly ever position in the backs apart from at scrum half.

With Jonny Wilkinson after winning the World Cup.

It was not all glory for Catty though. Steve Borthwick might sometimes think he’s got it bad with the criticism he receives as England captain but compared to Catty he’s no idea. The image of him being trampled by a young Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup is part of rugby’s history. He was constantly booed by the Twickenham crowd through the 90s. Place kicking was never his strong point and the crowd sure as hell let him know it when he messed up. Even after the glory of the World Cup in 2003, he was left out in the cold by Bath after 10 years of loyal service. But at 32, luckily for both him and myself, another glorious chapter was still to come.

Winning the Heineken Cup in 1998 against Brive with Mark Regan (l) and Ieuan Evans (c).

His move to London Irish was something that the club had not really experienced before. It was a huge capture. At 32 he may have seemed to some to be well past his prime. But what he did to the Irish team, along with the new Director of Rugby Brian Smith on his arrival a few years later, was take a side who were for want of a better word “dull” and make them a fantastic attacking threat. The move seemed to not just rejuvenate a struggling club but also Catty himself. Whether on the pitch or through advice off it as he slowly eased into his role of coach, his presence was felt all over the club. With Catty leading the rest seemed to follow. Who would have thought he would make another World Cup at the age of 35? And not only that, but get to the final? Catt’s time at Irish may not have ended with more medals, but it is what he brought to the club in terms of attitude, hunger and philosophy that he will be best remembered for.

Scoring against Quins in the Premiership semi-final last year.

And yet after all this success, there was still one brilliant moment. For all his achievements, last year’s semi-final victory over Harlequins is my personal favourite. With Andy Gomersall keen to get Quins going from inside the 22, he flung out a pass to the right, and Catty sprung. The look of pure joy on his face as he looked at myself and the rest of the Irish fans in the South Stand only metres away, was awesome. For Catty as a player, this was his swansong, his last moment of glory. It was a marvellous chapter to what is an excellent story. One of a young lad from Port Elizabeth coming to England with what many former team mates have described as an atrocious dress sense, to a man who earned the respect of the whole rugby community. The fact he has played in 17 professional seasons is just incredible. He is still fit as fiddle, apparently still beating even some of the academy boys in bleep tests in training. A real athlete with a beautiful kick, incredible hands and back in the day a fair bit of pace! But the thing that sets Catty apart has always been his vision, and his passion. Where others might see nothing, he always found a gap. Where others might have given up, he never did. It is these talents, these exceptional qualities in Rugby, that will hopefully see him become an excellent coach.

Thank you for everything Mike. You will always be one of my rugby heroes.

Look here from 4:31:

Worcester’s slide on paper should never have happened.

Worcester over the last few seasons have perplexed the rugby community, a club backed by excellent ownership in Cecil Duckworth and with a squad which when compared against that of say Leeds or Newcastle notably excels in many areas of the team. So how has it come to relegation? Well, whilst the Worcester team sheet has always looked attractive, it has never come together out on the pitch. Chris Latham, Rico Gear and Pat Sanderson are all top international rugby players with experience in abundance, whilst the likes of Tom Wood, Miles Benjamin and Jonny Arr have shown that they have the potential to go and become proven Premiership players. That is before other class acts like Willie Walker and Sam Tuitupou being mentioned to name a few.

Latham's class and experience has not been enough

What has killed Worcester has been surprisingly, given the list of players just mentioned, a major lack of penetration in the backline. This has come from the killer combination for any side in rugby union, slow ball at the rucks and a lack of direct running and bravery in attack. A few years ago they operated with a pack which was without a doubt one of the best in the league; it’s underdog, hard-working spirit seeing them sometimes overcome sides with of a far greater pedigree, and if not that then giving them a real scare. But the fire that drove Worcester once seems to have gone out. Craig Gillies was once heralded as a player who should have been playing for England, his towering frame and physical work in both the line-out and the scrum seen as something the national side couldn’t afford to leave out. However this season he has been a shadow of his former self, the grunt that made him so admired has disappeared. Greg Rawlinson is another player to arrive at Worcester with a big reputation, much like Rico Gear, yet has not lived up to expectations.

Mike Ruddock has resigned following Worcester's relegation

The resignation of Mike Ruddock, the Worcester Director of Rugby, this morning gives the answer to why the Warriors have dropped. Ruddock just simply hasn’t got his team playing like they can. There is more than enough penetration in the backs to have got over the game line, and score more than the 19 tries scored in 21 games. As a result a club with so much ambition both commercially and in terms of player recruitment may never come back from this. The likes of Andy Goode, Luke Rooney and Neil Best had all been signed for next season, but these moves will now be thrown up in the air.

Owner Cecil Duckworth has some tough decisions to make.

So what now? Well, Northampton Saints and Harlequins have proven in recent years that relegation need not be the end of a club, it can be in fact the thing that gives it life again. Saints and Quins though were fortunate in that there were not too many departures from their squads after they went down. Worcester may not find themselves in a similar situation given that there are definite departures for Latham and Wood, along with doubts over many over players. However, if they can retain a core, and get into a winning habit in the Championship along with some good signings, then there is nothing stopping them successfully bouncing back. It all depends on how much Cecil Duckworth wants to give it another go. He took Worcester from the lower leagues to the Premiership and a Challenge Cup final. Has he got the resources, and the drive, to do it all again?

Munster show brave Saints what it takes to be Champions

Northampton without a doubt proved on Saturday that they’ve got what is required to become one of Europe’s elite. In a game where they faced one of the hardest tasks in the European game in going to Thomond Park and winning, they gave it one hell of a go. They lead at half time after being under pressure for the majority of the first half, but then Munster did what we’ve seen them do so many times over the years, grinding Northampton down to the point where they were able to score the tries that gave them victory.

ROG showed that class is truly permanent

The conductor behind the now familiar orchestration of Munster’s triumphs in this tournament was no surprise. Ronan O’Gara may have lost his Ireland jersey to the young tyro in Johnny Sexton but he still knows how to run a game. With Lions captain Paul O’Connell absent for Munster in the engine room through his persistent groin issue, O’Gara stepped up to lead and kick Munster through. His work along with the likes of Alan Quinlan and David Wallace, who magnificently snaffled the ball away in a turnover during a late Northampton attack, was got Munster through this tie. All three of those players at this level have two winners medals, and quite simply bags of Heineken Cup experience. The latter is something that this young Northampton team, do not yet possess.

However, looking through their side on Saturday, there is so much potential that is Jim Mallinder can keep his squad together for long enough then they will definitely be major contenders in years to come.
In the backs they more than matched the class of such esteemed players like Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett, whilst upfront Soane Tonga’huia, Hartley, Roger Wilson and Dowson hit the game line hard, time after time. The likes of Ben Foden, Jon Clarke, Chris Ashton, Stephen Myler and Lee Dickson, along with Dylan Hartley and Phil Dowson in the forwards were all playing their first knockout Heineken Cup games, and now after Saturday will be absolutely starving for more of it. If it is at the top table of Europe’s teams where Saints aspire to be, then they have to get to this stage next season, and the season after that.

De Villiers takes on the young guns Foden and Geraghty

In addition, they look very good bets for the Guinness Premiership title, which says a lot about the state of the game in England as we will now watch two Franco-Irish semi-finals. Northampton are the closest English side to matching the Irish team’s squad familiarity and French side’s flair. Sure the likes of Juandre Kruger and Soane Tonga’huia may be moving on at the end of the season, but, there is enough core strength in the side to see them develop strongly over the next few seasons.

Smaller battles making the whole Premiership come alive

Three of the games I watched this weekend came from the Guinness Premiership, and all in their own ways were entertaining. Starting up at Edgeley Park where Sale beat Worcester in a match that was billed as a relegation dogfight but in fact proved to be nothing of the sort. From the kick off Sale were classier and looked like a side who should not be languishing at the bottom. Charlie Hodgson and Richard Wigglesworth at half back were awesome in the way they moved the Sale pack around the pitch, and then when they did eventually manage to open Worcester up, Mathew Tait and Mark Cueto led an attack which always looked like it would score tries.

Charlie Hodgson could have kicked Sale out of relegation danger

Hodgson in particular was clinical with his drop goals and kicks at goal, where as Willie Walker for Worcester horribly mis-fired. At the start of the second half and at 9-3 down, Worcester started to move the ball around and offloaded strongly in the tackle, but it all came to nothing. They had so much possession and territory at times in both halves but could not make anything happen from it. It now means that they are almost in a straight shoot out with Leeds, who picked up a handy bonus point at home to Northampton on the Saturday. However following Friday night and the way they performed, their chances of staying up look slim simply because they have so much potential power in their back line, yet just aren’t scoring the tries. Benjamin, Gear and Latham can are proven finishers at the highest level, so what is holding them back? A lack of tries, and ultimately away wins (none since November), could be what sees Worcester go down.

19 year old Freddie Burns was inspirational for Gloucester

Saturday’s game at Kingsholm was the pick of the weekend, an end to end tussle between Gloucester and Saracens pn a very boggy, wet pitch which looked straight out of the pre-professional era. Man of the Match Freddie Burns put in a scorching performance at 15, both through his goal-kicking and setting up of the second try for Charlie Sharples with a delicate cross-field kick. The handling from both sides was simply awesome given the conditions. Some great tries, both sides attacking non-stop, and even the drama of a last-minute penalty kick to win it for Derick Hougaard, which he missed. A cracker.

Dom Waldouck- putting his hand up for England selection

Wasps against Irish was a mini battle for 4th place and whilst Irish’s courage cannot be faulted Wasps look like they’re coming good again. Dom Waldouck at outside centre was excellent, his break and kick over to the on-rushing Varndell on the right wing a moment of class. Danny Cipriani showed that he has lost absolutely none of his pace when he flew through the Irish centres and passed inside to Man of the Match Waldouck for the bonus point try. As for Irish, they were simply blitzed every time they were turned over, and their lack of penetration out wide from missing Tagicakibau, Ojo and Thompstone has really blunted their attack. For now Wasps are in pole position, but with five games to go, any two of Saracens, Bath, Wasps and Irish, could take spots 3 and 4 in the league table, and make the play offs.

Leeds desire showing as Sale slide to the bottom

Leeds’s resurgence has meant that there is now a dogged, exhilarating scrap between themselves, Sale, Worcester, Newcastle and possibly Harlequins occurring over the Premiership’s trapdoor.

It has been the same now for so many years with few exceptions; team is promoted from ND1, squad has lack of time to bond, quality is scarce, and along with financial constraints but for no lack of heart or effort, they are automatically relegated straight back down. Leeds know this story well, having been relegated in 2006 to come back up again in 2007, before dropping again. The yo-yo effect is a familiar one, but this time round though things seems different.

Leeds Hendre Fourie is a new call up to the England squad

At first the heavy losses bore an all too familiar resemblance to how Leeds have struggled in the past, but the coaching team of Andy Key and Leicester legend Neil Back insisted that their side would come good. Visa problems, a lack of time for all the players to bond and trying to get confidence into a side have all been challenges which Leeds have faced and overcome. In terms of personnel, there really are top players in key positions, Seru Rabeni at centre, in-form Cieron Thomas and the impressive young Joe Ford at fly half, and ex-England scrum half Andy Gomersall provides great experience. In the forwards, Andy Titterell and Marco Wentzel are both proven Premiership players, whilst there are the really exciting prospects in the back row in Calum Clark (set to join Northampton Saints next season), and Hendre Fourie, who at the time of writing has just been drafted into the England squad. The fact that Leeds have been at the foot of the table for so long this season is almost beneficial; it has brought then together tightly as a group where whilst the class all over the pitch might not be there as with other sides, there is so much desire and energy. They know how to scrap out a relegation battle, and that will help massively as the season draws to a close.

Sale's future is looking bleak after eight successive losses

Where as Sale, champions in 2006, are now in major trouble. The quality is still there in certain positions, Dwayne Peel and Charlie Hodgson are both Lions touring members, whilst Mathew Tait and Lee Thomas are very good centres, and even out wide there is Mark Cueto to score the tries. But it just seems Sale went through so much change over the summer, notably the departures of director of rugby Phillipe Saint-Andre, and key players such as Sebastian Chabal and Sebastian Bruno. This core of players and management being taken away after so many years of stability meant a transitional year was inevitable.

However for Sale to be now at the bottom of the table with 6 games to go, although they admittedly have a game in hand, and to now be eight successive losses on the bounce, things look grim. Kingsley Jones and Jason Robinson have a hell of a task on their hands to try to keep Sale firstly believing they can survive and secondly to play with confidence. The worst thing now would be if the players go into their shells and are afraid of taking the risks or chances which could win them matches. What it does mean now though is that we have a really exciting relegation battle.

Expect more twists and turns before the end in May.

Moody´s move to Bath a sign of ambition

Moody (r) will join Bath after over a decade at Leicester

It was announced last week the Leicester and England Lewis Moody will be moving away from the club where he has spent his whole career over to arch-rivals Bath next season. Personally, I see this as a brave decision from a player who is respected by all for his attitude and commitment on the pitch. He has taken a gamble, and the choice to move is a huge one, and not for financial reasons. When you have been at a club all your career, supporters and pundits alike always question how the player would have got on in a new enviroment, without the security of where they have made their name.

Olly Barkley is a prime example of a move away not working. He spent a very unhappy year at Gloucester before coming back to Bath this season, saying that he realised that Bath was home and he didn’t want play anywhere else. Whether Moody will feel the same come the end of his first few months down at the Rec is hard to say, but Barkley is proof that the grass is not always greener.

As for Bath themselves, their fortunes really seem to be turning around. Four wins on the bounce have coincided with the return of Butch James at 10 and the arrival of Luke Watson from the Stormers. That with the return of Barkley last weekend and the annoucement of the Moody signing has given the club an incredibly positive vibe, and makes them already look an exciting unit for next season.

The Big games this weekend; Lote departs and Richie returns

With the Six Nations on a break this weekend it is back to club rugby and the vastly different leagues of the exotic, attractive Super 14, and the fearful, at times dull Guinness Premiership.

The pick of the bunch this weekend in the Southern Hemisphere comes in the all New Zealand derby of the Crusaders against the Blues. Despite a surprise defeat against the Reds in Queensland in Round Two, the Canterbury side have looked pretty sharp, with summer signing from the Hurricanes Zac Guildford scoring plenty of tries on the left wing. Combine him with Daniel Carter at 10 with his distribution skills and kicking and you have a good threat out wide in the backs.

Richie McCaw returns to captain the Crusaders

The return of Richie McCaw at 6 though gives the Crusaders a massive boost, as it would any team. As a captain and a player he is nearly peerless, especially in his position. Elsewhere the young new All Black prop Owen Franks is enjoying himself, proving his call up in the Autumn was no fluke. His technique is excellent, rarely getting hassled by the opposition, though he will have to be on his game against fellow All Black Tony Woodcock this weekend.

The Blues will boast an all-Test front row with Woodcock joining Kevin Mealamu and John Afoa. The rest of the pack though, minus Anthony Boric at lock and Jerome Kaino, are not quite as impressive as their opposite numbers, and will have to work hard at the breakdown against the likes of McCaw and Keiran Reid if they are to provide good ball for their lethal backs.

Stephen Brett will face his old side this weekend

Stephen Brett´s switch to the Blues from the Crusaders seems to be working as he is getting regular first team rugby, and he is always a threat. He has seemed to step out of Dan Carter´s shadow at the Crusaders and is now playing with real freedom. His relationship with another new signing in Alby Matthewson at half back seems to be growing every week. As for the backs, the likes of Benson Stanley, Joe Rokocoko and Rudi Wulf need no introduction to Super 14 watchers who have seen what they can do, but losing Isaia Toeava is a blow. Paul Williams at full back popped up with two tries in round 1 and will look to continue his good form.

As for a prediction, the Crusaders may not be quite what they used to be behind the scrum in the days of Aaron Mauger, Justin Marshall and Caleb Ralph, but there is enough spark to cause trouble. Upfront they should have the edge, plus with home advantage at the AMI stadium, if they can stop the Blues getting the ball wide and quickly, then they should win.

Back to the north, and the big game in the Guinness Premiership is where Leicester Tigers face London Irish. Irish have only won once in 2010 which has more than slightly hurt their title chances, with major injuries to key players hindering their progress, but they are still in a good position to secure a home semi-final spot if they can just start winning again regulary.

Tom Homer has been in top form for Irish

The lack of continuity at 10 goes on with Chris Malone and Ryan Lamb both not being able to keep hold of the shirt due to poor performances, but last week´s win over Harlequins should have given them confidence again. Also, the young back Tom Homer has really been a revelation with his goal kicking and attacking play, and at the moment he seems to keeping Irish going from 15. Without Sailosi Tagicakibau for the rest of the season, one of their main attacking threats has gone, but do not right them off. They will still play with ambition, and have enough to compete with anyone on their day.

Lote Tuqiri will play his last game for Leicester

Meanwhile for Leicester, who look strong as always, it will be the last game for Lote Tuqiri before he heads back to Australia and an NRL contract with the West Tigers. His loan signing has been successful, covering for Leicester´s injuries and scoring some great tries in the process. As for Leicester themselves, whilst minus a few of their squad on international duty they still possess a squad strong enough to win this game. Ben Youngs at scrum half has been one of the stars of this season with his searing pace and attacking flair from rucks and scrums. Irish have only won at Welford Road once. Ever. Don´t expect a second.