Simon Mail previews the first Premiership fixtures of 2019 including champions Saracens' tricky trip to Sale...
"Saracens' results have been exceptional over the last year and have only lost one of their last 18 Premiership matches. The champions have also only been beaten once by Sale in the last eight years and are fancied to come out on top again."
Champions to edge to away win
Sale v Saracens
Live on BT Sport 1
Saracens' unbeaten start to the season was ended after their defeat at Exeter at the end of 2018 but the Premiership champions are still in an enviable position. The Men in Black battled to a 25-17 home win over Worcester last week to leave them one point behind leaders Exeter. Saracens are boosted by the return from injury of Liam Williams and England forward Billy Vunipola for the trip to the AJ Bell Stadium.
Sale finished the calendar year in style with back-to-back league wins including an impressive 30-15 victory at Gloucester in their last match. The Sharks have climbed up to seventh in the table and are only three points off a top-four spot. Sale have only lost one of their last six league matches and their current form suggests it will be a tough encounter for Sarries.
Saracens' results have been exceptional over the last year and have only lost one of their last 18 Premiership matches. The champions have also only been beaten once by Sale in the last eight years and are fancied to come out on top again. All four of Saracens' away wins in the Premiership this season have been by 12 points or less and this has to be the most likely outcome from another tricky trip.
Gloucester set for more frustration at Leicester
Leicester v Gloucester
Live on BT Sport 1
Leicester missed out on the semi-finals last season and the team face a major struggle to finish in the top four this year. The Tigers are languishing in ninth position in the Premiership although it is extremely tightly packed with the team only four points off fourth-placed Harlequins. Geordan Murphy, recently appointed permanent head coach, guided them to a 35-24 home win over Harlequins last month before a 23-16 loss at Bath last week.
Gloucester are on course for the top four, sitting handily in third spot, but even their form has underlined the inconsistency outside of the top two sides. The Cherry and Whites stumbled last week after slumping to a surprise home defeat against Sale. It was their fourth league loss of the campaign and head coach Johan Ackerman apologised for his team's performance at Kingsholm.
The betting suggests it is difficult to split these sides but home advantage could give Leicester the edge. The Tigers produced a much more encouraging display in their last game at Welford Road and it is a stadium where Gloucester have struggled. The visitors have not won at Leicester since 2007 and the hoodoo could continue with the hosts backed to win by two points or more.
Improving Saints worth support
Wasps v Northampton
Live on BT Sport 1
It has been a miserable winter for Wasps with Dai Young's side winning only one of their last 13 matches. Five successive defeats in all competitions have left the team short on confidence heading into the new year. Their 20-13 loss to Harlequins at Twickenham saw them tumble down to eighth with their last win coming back in November.
Northampton, on the other hand, are heading in the right direction and the signs are the Saints could finish in the top four. A slow start to the season under new director of rugby Chris Boyd was understandable but his team have now put together four consecutive wins including a walkover in the European Challenge Cup. Their 31-28 home victory over leaders Exeter last week was very impressive and highlighted the improvements made over the last month.
Wasps are favourites for this weekend's match but look impossible to trust on current form. The value lies with Northampton although it could be worth backing them with a five-point handicap head start. The Saints have not lost by more than five points in their last 11 matches and this run should continue at the Ricoh Arena against a struggling Wasps side.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
P/L 2018-19 season