With an exciting weekend of Premiership rugby the focus seems to be on the clash between table-topping Harlequins and fourth placed London Wasps.
After joining Harlequins from Championship side the Cornish Pirates and forcing his way into the England Saxons set-up, centre Matt Hopper’s rise could quite easily be described as meteoric.
But while many have struggled to replicate their early impact in their second top flight season, the 28-year-old believes he is now putting early errors behind him and coming of age at the reigning Premiership champions.
Hopper showed all his attributes in claiming the vital try as Quins beat the Ospreys 12-16 in Bridgend at the weekend, to set up an LV=Cup semi-final at Bath next month. And the Quins star insists there is more to come, having made himself a regular first XV starter this season.
“This year has been good, last year I came in because of an injury to George Lowe and something similar has happened this year,” said Hopper, who joined Quins in April 2011.
“I’ve managed to right a few wrongs from last year and help the team so I’m really happy with the way things are going but I just look at it from week to week, competition for places is so strong here I just need to keep my head down.
“It was just a step up for me from the Championship and the emphasis was on me to show people what I could do but sometimes you end up making the wrong decisions. This year is just about concentrating on what I’ve got to do and doing the simple things well.”
Hopper has been an integral part of a Harlequins side that has now gone ten games unbeaten – the sort of run that saw them steamroll opponents on their way to the Premiership title last season.
And while they are known for their offloading game, the Exeter-born player believes Quins’ defence has been equally important in recent weeks – particularly with many senior players away on international duty.
That stubborn streak was on show in the mud and the rain in Bridgend, as Quins ground out a narrow victory, with Ben Botica kicking 11 points to see the Londoners home.
“We knew it would be a tough test but we had a good week in training and tried out a number of different combinations,” said Hopper.
“It was definitely difficult going out there given the conditions so it certainly wasn’t an easy game but I think we showed a lot of what we can do and got the result we deserved in the end, and it was nice to keep that clean sheet.
“I played on that ground a couple of times when I was at university and didn’t get anything so it was nice to get across the line.
“We trained very seriously in the week and it was very important we kept that momentum going, that’s something that the coaches have talked about.
“We’ve changed as a team and tried to evolve in the way that we play so I wouldn’t say this is a defining point of the season.
“Although we’ve done a lot of hard work we haven’t achieved anything yet so we just need to keep our heads down and keep grinding out the wins.”
We look at all the Round 14 action!
Friday, February 8:
Sale Sharks v Exeter Chiefs
(Salford City Stadium – 19.45)
It was Danny Cipriani’s Premiership debut for Sale Sharks, and the worst possible start, but the England flyhalf insists revenge is not on his mind as Exeter Chiefs come to town this Friday.
The Chiefs were overwhelming 43-6 winners at Sandy Park in September, a sign of things to come for the Sharks who have struggled since that opening day loss and remain bottom of the table.
There have been signs of life recently however – two Anglo-Welsh Cup victories over Scarlets and London Wasps breathing new life into the Salford City Stadium outfit.
But 25-year-old Cipriani knows they need to start getting results on the board in the league, starting with Friday’s clash.
“I’ve personally not thought about revenge from the opening weekend, but just how much of a big game it is to us,” said Cipriani.
“You know about it, but you put it to one side because it’s one game and you can’t go into like that.
“At half-time last weekend [against Wasps], the players were all in control because we know what was going on, and we just needed a calm voice.
“The players provided that and it was quite player-dominated, which was good. This weekend we understand it’s a huge game, but we can’t go away from what we’ve been doing.”
Chiefs haven’t been on the best of runs either, but a run of seven games without a win in all competitions was ended with a 28-19 victory over Northampton Saints on Friday.
Their hopes of landing a play-off berth have been hindered by a three-game Premiership losing run but lock Aly Muldowney hopes to turn the corner against the Sharks.
“Obviously they’re battling for their lives and fighting against relegation, but they’ve just had a couple of good results and they will be gunning for us and targeting a win,” he said.
“They will be in a good place after their last couple of games, but it could be a good time to play them given our win at the weekend.
“They are a good team, but results just haven’t gone their way this season. We’ll need to be careful.
“We hope we can replicate the result earlier in the season, but this will be a different game altogether.”
Sale Sharks: 15 Rob Miller, 14 Charlie Amesbury, 13 Jonny Leota, 12 Sammy Tuitupou, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 James Gaskell, 7 David Seymour (captain), 6 Dan Braid, 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Tom Holmes, 3 Henry Thomas, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Tony Buckley, 19 Fraser McKenzie, 20 Richie Vernon, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Nick Macleod, 23 Will Addison.
Exeter Chief: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Watisoni Votu, 13 Sireli Naqelevuki, 12 Jason Shoemark, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Will Chudley, 8 Richard Baxter, 7 James Scaysbrook, 6 Ben White, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 Tom Hayes (captain), 3 Hoani Tui, 2 Neil Clark, 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Alex Brown, 19 Aly Muldowney, 20 Kai Horstmann, 21 Haydn Thomas, 22 Ignacio Mieres, 23 Phil Dollman.
Referee: Greg Garner
Assistant Referees: Robin Goodliffe, Stuart Terheege
TMO: Trevor Fisher
Saturday, February 9:
Northampton Saints v Gloucester Rugby
(Franklin’s Gardens – 12.30)
The battle for the Premiership play-offs is gathering pace and Gloucester Rugby flanker Andy Hazell admits this Saturday’s clash against Northampton Saints is “all or nothing”.
Hazell is set to make his first league appearance since September after serving a 14-week ban and is desperate to make a telling impression.
Gloucester have lost their last three Premiership away fixtures, but go into this weekend just a point and a position below fifth-placed Northampton.
Nonetheless, Hazell will be hoping for a better result than the one that welcomed his return to the Cherry & Whites fold in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in January – a 26-7 defeat against the Saints contributing to their group stage elimination from the competition.
But with that defeat at Franklin’s Gardens still fresh in the memory, the 34-year-old is relishing the chance to make amends this weekend.
“It is a great game for us. We have had a few games where results haven’t gone our way and we need to go down there and prove people wrong,” said Hazell.
“We have to get the win. There is no point looking at this or that game in a few weeks time because this is all or nothing.
“We have to start picking our form up and that starts with this weekend. We didn’t learn anything new about Northampton from the LV= Cup tie.
“They are a good side with a good set-piece, a good scrum and lineout, and we just didn’t deal with it.
“That defeat is fresh in our minds and has helped explain where we need to be. We have been working on those things this week.”
The two clubs have already met twice this season, with the Saints victorious on both occasions in the Premiership and Anglo-Welsh Cup.
And flying wing Jamie Elliott hopes home advantage pays off – despite winning just one of their last three league games at Franklin’s Gardens.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough game, although we have the home advantage,” said Elliott.
“They might be looking for a bit of revenge after getting beaten by Bath in the LV=Cup at their place so it should be a good game.
“Having the home crowd is always good, having them on your side does help and knowing you are playing for them gives you that little bit extra.
“We know they are a good side and their back three are pretty dangerous and they are also dangerous at nine and ten, they have a very strong pack as well so they are very similar to us and just have a lot of good players.”
Northampton Saints: 15 James Wilson, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Dom Waldouck, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 GJ van Velze, 7 Ben Nutley, 6 Phil Dowson (captain), 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Tom Mercey, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran Jones, 19 James Craig, 20 Rhys Oakley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Tom May.
Gloucester: 15 Rob Cook, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Mike Tindall (captain), 12 Tim Molenaar, 11 Jonny May, 10 Ryan Mills, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Sione Kalamafoni 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Tom Savage, 5 Will James, 4 Lua Lokotui, 3 Rupert Harden, 2 Darren Dawidiuk, 1 Nick Wood.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso d’Apice, 17 Dan Murphy, 18 Yann Thomas, 19 Peter Buxton, 20 Matt Cox, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Shane Monahan, 23 Martyn Thomas.
Referee: Martin Fox.
Assistant Referees: Andrew Watson, Robin Goodliffe.
TMO: David Grashoff.
Bath Rugby v Worcester Warriors
(Recreation Ground – 14.15)
Worcester Warriors fullback Errie Claassens is itching to maintain his perfect record in the sibling rivalry when he heads to Bath Rugby to take on little brother Michael this weekend.
With just a year separating them the rivalry is unsurprisingly a keen one however the two will meet for just the second time in their careers in Saturday’s Premiership clash at the Rec.
Errie tasted victory in last year’s fixture however missed the corresponding clash earlier this season when Bath secured a narrow 24-23 win at Sixways.
This weekend’s trip to the Rec could well be the second and last meeting with Errie heading for pastures new at Bristol and Michael’s future undecided.
And as a result Worcester fullback Errie is desperate to continue his 100 percent record at the Rec.
“I have only played against my brother once and it was last season. We came away with the win and I would love to keep up that 100 percent record,” Errie said.
“When Bath beat us at the start of the season I was not playing so in terms of the battle with my brother I don’t count it!
“We know what a tough place the Rec is to go to, we will need to be at our very best.
“Our away form has been a real problem but we are doing everything we can in terms of our preparation to try and change that.
“This could be the last time I go up against my brother and I’m sure it will be a game I look back on fondly, as long as we get the right result.”
While it will be a memorable weekend for the Claassens family, it’s set to be equally momentous for Bath hooker Rob Webber – appearing in his first Premiership game since March last year.
Despite winning their last four games in all competitions, in the Premiership Bath have managed just a solitary victory from their last six outings: 21-18 at home to table-topping Harlequins on November 23.
Worcester’s only win in their last four Premiership matches was 13-6 at home to London Welsh in round 11.
The Warriors are without an away victory in the Premiership since they visited London Wasps on New Year’s Day 2012 and have beaten Bath just once since March 2007.
While the stats favour Bath, Webber – who was sidelined with a shoulder injury – is not taking the clash lightly.
“Worcester have got a lot of experienced lads who will be very tough, especially up front. They are a big and tough side and there is no doubt that it will be a physical battle that we will need to match them in,” said Webber.
“We know that a few good results can boost us and send us up the table and we’ll be going all out to win the game.
“It will be nice to run out at the Rec in a Premiership game for the first time and with most of the crowd on my side rather than against me.”
Bath: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Kyle Eastmond, 12 Matt Banahan, 11 Tom Biggs, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Ben Skirving, 7 Carl Fearns, 6 Francois Louw (captain), 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Dominic Day, 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Charlie Beech.
Replacements: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Kane Palma-Newport, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Mat Gilbert, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Tom Heathcote, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni.
Worcester: 15 Errie Claassens, 14 Josh Drauniniu, 13 Alex Grove, 12 Jon Clarke, 11 David Lemi, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Jonny Arr, 8 Matt Kvesic, 7 Sam Betty, 6 Neil Best, 5 Dean Schofield, 4 James Percival (c), 3 John Andress, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Ed Shervington, 17 Ceri Jones, 18 Rob O’Donnell, 19 Craig Gillies, 20 Jake Abbott, 21 Paul Hodgson, 22 Danny Gray, 23 Josh Matavesi.
Referee: Wayne Barnes.
Assistant Referees: Gareth Copsey, Andrew Pearce.
TMO: Laurie Bryant
Leicester Tigers v London Welsh
(Welford Road – 15.00)
Leicester Tigers have won their last four Premiership Rugby encounters since tripping up at London Wasps in round nine.
The Tigers’ only home loss at Welford Road in any competition since October 2011 was to Harlequins, 9-22, on 22 September.
London Welsh’s only win in their last eight matches in all tournaments was 62-5 over Prato in the European Challenge Cup at Oxford on 12 January.
The Exiles’ only away victory in the Premiership so far came at Sale on 21 September.
Leicester have won their last five games against London Welsh since the Exiles most recent victory over the Tigers – 9-6 on 19 September 1987 at Welford Road in a friendly fixture.
Leicester won 38- 13 when the two clubs met in the Premiership at Kassam Stadium in round one.
Leicester: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Niall Morris, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Adam Thompstone, 10 George Ford, 9 Sam Harrison, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Louis Deacon (captain), 3 Logovi’i Mulipola, 2 Rob Hawkins, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Ed Slater, 20 Brett Deacon, 21 Micky Young, 22 Dan Bowden, 23 Geordan Murphy.
London Welsh: 15 Tom Arscott, 14 Phil MacKenzie, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Sonny Parker, 11 Nick Scott, 10 Gordon Ross, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Ed Jackson, 7 Michael Hills, 6 Adam Balding, 5 Matt Corker, 4 Jonathan Mills (captain), 3 Greg Bateman, 2 Neil Briggs, 1 Franck Montanella.
Replacements: 16 Dan George, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 James Tideswell, 19 Martin Purdy, 20 Ed Williamson, 21 Seb Jewell, 22 Gavin Henson, 23 Rob Lewis.
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth.
Assistant Referees: Steve Lee, Stuart Terheege.
London Irish v Saracens
(Madejski Stadium – 15.00)
London Irish forward Jebb Sinclair insists his side will be making the most of home comforts this weekend in their derby with London rivals Saracens.
The Exiles have made a blistering start to 2013, winning four games on the spin until last weekend’s reversal against the Cardiff Blues.
But in the Premiership their recent record is disappointing, with only six league points from their last half a dozen encounters.
And with the battle for survival entering a crucial stage of the season with four league games in succession in the next month, Sinclair knows that tests do not come much harder than Sarries.
Mark McCall’s side have won their last eight contests in all competitions and at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday Sinclair and co will need to be at their very best.
“We know exactly what type of game Saracens are going to come with, they are very solid and look to take the three points every time they get into your 22,” he said.
“But the Madejski is a big wide pitch and we will be looking to take full advantage of that fact and make Sarries play our game.
“The fact that they will be missing a few big players makes no difference to our preparations, they have an unbelievably deep squad.
“With the home support behind us we will give them a real fight in what is a vital period of the season for us.”
Saracens currently sit second in the Premiership table with only two defeats all season but have only scored 13 tries in this league campaign, the lowest number in the division.
But despite being robbed of key players like Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and Owen Farrell, prop Matt Stevens is confident his side have enough about them to match the Exiles on the day.
“I think London Irish have some great individual players and I think they have seen some real form over the last couple of months winning a lot of their last few games at home,” he said.
“They are a good team that likes to throw the ball around and play some good attacking rugby so I think it’ll be a good game to watch. We’ve prepared for them and I’m looking forward to the game.
“We go into every game with the intention of winning. The beauty of the league is that every side in the Aviva Premiership can beat any other side on any given day.
“We’re not arrogant in the sense that we don’t go into games thinking we’re going to win without putting any effort in but we hope we do.”
London Irish: 15 Tom Homer, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Guy Armitage, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Pat Phibbs, 8 Chris Hala’ufia 7 Jebb Sinclair, 6 Matt Garvey, 5 Bryn Evans (Captain), 4 George Skivington, 3 Halani Aulika, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Max Lahiff.
Replacements: 16 Mike Mayhew, 17 Jerry Yanuyanutawa, 18Leo Halavatau, 19Jamie Gibson, 20 Ofisa Treviranus, 21 Steven Shingler, 22 Shane Geraghty, 23 Jack Moates
Saracens: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 Joe Maddock, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Will Fraser, 6 George Kruis, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 John Smit, 1 Nick Auterac.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nils Mordt, 23 James Short.
Referee: Andrew Small.
Assistant Referees: Kevin Stewart, Ashley Rowden.
Harlequins v Wasps
(Twickenham Stoop – 20.00)
Harlequins are now on a ten match winning streak in all competitions, and have won their last seven encounters at the Twickenham Stoop.
The reigning Premiership Rugby champions are once again the form team in the tournament (along with Leicester) with both sides securing 22 league points from their last six games.
London Wasps only loss in their last five Premiership Rugby matches was at Exeter, 23-30, on 1 December.
Wasps 34-15 victory at London Welsh in round twelve ended an unwanted twelve game losing run away from home in the Premiership.
Harlequins have won their last six fixtures against Wasps in all tournaments.
Wasps have not won at the Twickenham Stoop since a visit in the Premiership on 10 March 2007.
Harlequins: 15 Ross Chisholm, 14 Tom Williams, 13 George Lowe, 12 Matt Hopper, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Karl Dickson, 8 Nick Easter (captain), 7 Luke Wallace, 6 Tom Guest, 5 George Robson, 4 Charlie Matthews, 3 James Johnston, 2 Joe Gray, 1 Mark Lambert.
Replacements: 16 Rob Buchanan, 17 Darryl Marfo, 18 Will Collier, 19 Sam Twomey, 20 Maurie Fa’asavalu, 21 Ollie Lindsay-Hague, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Jordan Turner-Hall.
Wasps: 15 Hugo Southwell (captain), 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Chris Bell, 11 Tom Varndell, 10 Nick Robinson, 9 Joe Simpson, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sam Jones, 6 Ashley Johnson, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 James Cannon, 3 Phil Swainston, 2 T Rhys Thomas, 1 Zak Taulafo.
Replacements: 16 Tom Lindsay, 17 Tim Payne, 18 Will Taylor, 19 Alex Rae, 20 Tinus Du Plessis, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Stephen Jones, 23 Charlie Hayter.
Referee: J.P. Doyle.
Assistant Referees: Peter Huckle, Nigel Carrick.
TMO: Geoff Warren.
Table after Thirteen Rounds