The Premiership returns this weekend and Simon Mail previews the televised domestic action including Exeter's trip to Northampton Saints...
"The Premiership champions are absolutely flying in the league with five successive wins taking them eight points clear at the top."
Worcester v London Irish
Live on BT Sport 1
Potentially the most important game of the weekend comes at Sixways with the Premiership's bottom two facing each other. Worcester made a very slow start to the season, losing their first seven matches in the competition. But the Warriors have improved in recent weeks with a home win over Northampton getting them off the mark. This was followed by a memorable 31-27 win at Leicester last month to help them climb off the foot of the table.
London Irish are propping up the Premiership which is no real surprise following their promotion last season. But the side got off to an ideal start after their 39-29 win over Harlequins at Twickenham on the opening weekend. It has been all downhill from there though with London Irish losing their next ten matches in the competition. It leaves the team six points behind this weekend's opponents in the race to avoid relegation.
The significance of this match is huge for both teams and it could be difficult for London Irish to claw back the deficit if they are beaten by their nearest rivals. The Warriors have noticeably improved in recent weeks and come into the match with momentum and home advantage. Worcester are fancied to claim a crucial victory, but four of Irish's last six league defeats have been by 12 points or less, which points towards another narrow loss.
Northampton v Exeter
Live on BT Sport 2
It has been a disastrous run for Northampton which ultimately resulted in the sacking of director of rugby Jim Mallinder. The Saints have lost ten of their last 11 matches to leave their domestic and European hopes in disarray. There is a huge crisis of confidence in the squad and their last home game led to a shocking 43-32 defeat to the Ospreys when they trailed by 35 points at one stage.
There are no such problems for Exeter despite two narrow defeats to Leinster in the Champions Cup. The Premiership champions are absolutely flying in the league with five successive wins taking them eight points clear at the top. Rob Baxter's side have built on last season's title triumph and if anything have actually improved to take their game up another level.
This match brings together two teams with markedly contrasting form. While Northampton cannot buy a victory, the Chiefs are full of confidence after setting the pace domestically. Exeter will have taken a lot from their performance in Leinster, despite a 22-17 defeat, with this match offering a great opportunity to continue their exceptional form in the Premiership. The visitors look worth backing to cover a five-point handicap against a Saints team which have shipped 99 points in their last three matches.
Leicester v Saracens
Live on BT Sport 1
The Christmas Eve clash at Welford Road surprisingly brings together two teams in desperate need of a win. Leicester and Saracens are two of the most successful clubs in Premiership history but both are under pressure after a poor set of results. The Tigers, who are sixth in the league, have lost their last four games in all competitions including their home defeat to Munster on Sunday which leaves them struggling to progress in Europe.
Saracens come into this match in even worse shape after losing seven matches in a row. It is an almost unthinkable scenario for the Men in Black after two years of domination in Europe. Sarries improved last weekend but were still beaten 24-21 in Clermont to leave their Champions Cup hopes in the balance. Saracens are still third in the Premiership but cannot really afford their losing run to continue.
Leicester are normally very difficult to beat at Welford Road but have lost their last two games at home. Despite Saracens' losing run, the visitors are odds-on favourites for this match which is quite hard to fathom. This looks much more of an even contest and the Tigers are rarely on offer at odds as big as 13/10 to win at home. These teams have questions to answer but with doubts surrounding both, Leicester appear to offer better value.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
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