PREVIEW – Worcester vs London Irish

After a two week break for European action, the Aviva Premiership returns with a crunch Friday night clash at Sixways, where Worcester host London Irish in a huge relegation battle.

11. Worcester (14 points)

Worcester’s defence is slightly more solid than their relegation rivals, but they have still conceded 279 points. This gives them the third worst defence in the Premiership. Coupled with their defensive ineptitude, the Warriors have scored just 173 points – the least in the Premiership. In spite of this statistic, Worcester have improved going forward in recent rounds, scoring 30 and 31 points against Northampton and Leicester respectively.

Worcester began the season without their star player, Francois Hougaard, who was serving South Africa in the Rugby Championship. Australian fly-half Jono Lance has also arrived at Sixways, which has gone some way towards solving the Warriors’ struggles in the pivot position.

12. London Irish (8 points)

Irish’s season so far has been haunted by an inability to start games well. Before the season began, you’d have thought their problem would have been towards the end of games, having spent a year playing at the Championship’s lower intensity and speed.

Another hindrance in Irish’s Premiership campaign so far has been their defence. With a senior squad containing just one specialist outside centre, teams have capitalised on holes which often pop up throughout the backline. Rob Horne and Gareth Owen in particular enjoyed their game at the Madejski for Northampton and Leicester respectively.

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London Irish have struggled defensively this season

Returning Backs

As already outlined, Worcester’s improving attack comes up against Irish’s faltering defence. The Warriors have one of the League’s form attackers in Josh Adams, while Chris Pennell’s return has been welcome. On the other hand, Fergus Mulchrone recently returned from injury for the Exiles. Mulchrone was a key defensive cog in the machine which dominated the Championship last season, and the centre’s work rate is vital to any potential success.

Playmakers

Francois Hougaard has recently returned to the Worcester team, and it is no coincidence that their results have improved. This, coupled with the arrival of fly-half Jono Lance, has given his side the tools to dominate territory and possession.

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Francois Hougaard has added impetus to a struggling Worcester side

Meanwhile, Irish’s playmakers are slightly more settled, but have been less effective. Australian scrum-half Ben Meehan is beginning to get to grips with Premiership life, but Nick Kennedy has struggled to pick between Tommy Bell and James Marshall in the fly-half position. Bell is more solid and offers a better kicking game, but Marshall can threaten a defensive line like few others. In recent weeks, Kennedy has plumped for Bell at 10 with Marshall at 15, but Greig Tonks’ quality display against Stade Francais last weekend could persuade him to give the Scotsman the nod at 10, in a bid to find a balance between attack and defence.

Forwards

Worcester can boast of an experienced pack, including Scottish international David Denton and veteran Donncha O’Callaghan. If the Warriors can get front foot ball from their forwards, it’s highly likely that their backline will be able to cause Irish no end of issues.

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London Irish and Worcester facing off in Irish’s last season in the Premiership

On the other side, Irish have welcomed quality international forwards Gordon Reid and Saia Fainga’a back from injury. Despite this, talismanic hooker David Paice will remain suspended for the Worcester clash, which is a blow for the Exiles. All being well, Irish will be able to field the same back row which destroyed Harlequins at Twickenham for the first time since.

Prediction

Though Worcester have returned to form in recent weeks, London Irish face the prospect of an 11 point margin if they lose at Sixways. That pressure alone, added to returning key players, could give the Exiles a vital victory.

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