Aviva Premiership: Top of the table clash as Saints host Irish
Northampton Saints host London Irish at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday to kick off a busy weekend of Aviva Premiership rugby.
Only three points separate the two sides at the top of the table and putting the distractions of the last autumn internationals aside, this game has all the makings of an absolute nail-biter.
The Saints are looking to stay at the summit of the Aviva Premiership in what will be the last round of fixtures before clubs are strengthened by the return of their international players.
And the hosts are far more handicapped than London Irish who see their full-back, Delon Armitage, return to the side after he was released by Martin Johnson ahead of England’s clash win South Africa on Saturday.
Armitage started the last three Tests on the bench and has lost his place to Matt Banahan, who has been rewarded for his performance against Samoa last week.
Northampton’s key men -Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton -all remain in England’s 32-man elite squad.
But despite losing key players to international duty both teams have played some impressive rugby this season. Saints have only lost once to a well-drilled Saracens back in September.
Irish have slipped up twice, away to Wasps and Bath. Head coach Toby Booth spoke of being “in a state of shock” following his side’s 33-25 defeat at the hands of Wasps last week. The Exiles conceded a last minute penalty, which denied them a losing bonus point and the top spot.
Northampton leapfrogged Irish last weekend with their win at Sale Sharks. Ex-Saints winger, Ben Cohen scored the only first-half try to put his old club under early pressure.
But Stephen Mylers’ three penalties had put the visitors ahead by half time. Jamie Elliott, 18, set up Greig Tonks’ try then scored one of his own on his Premiership debut make it 19-10.
It is difficult to imagine, yet Saints spent a season in the second tier of English rugby in 2007-8. It appears they are now well and truly back to their best, especially after winning the LV Cup and finishing second last season. They narrowly missed out on a place in the play-off final after a 19-21 defeat to Saracens.
Perhaps this year will be different a story although many would find it hard to argue that at least four or five teams are in contention to win this year’s Premiership, starting with London Irish.
This weekend’s round of Aviva Premiership fixtures:
Northampton Saints v London Irish
Exeter v Sale
Leicester Tigers v Newcastle Falcons
Gloucester v Saracens
Bath v Wasps
Harlequins v Leeds Carnegie