Northampton v London Irish
Strange as it may seem, Northampton have been off their game since Luther Burrell, Lee Dickson, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood ended their England stint and reappeared at Franklin’s Gardens. They cannot afford to stay off it for much longer. Victory over the Exiles is a minimum requirement if Jim Mallinder’s charges are to nail down a home Premiership semi-final.
Hartley is injured and Dickson is playing second fiddle to Kahn Fotuali’i on this occasion, but the other Test players are present and correct. As for Sam Dickinson, much talked about at the start of the season but less widely discussed now, he has a chance to jump-start himself at No 8.
The visitors are certain to stay in the Premiership and can therefore play with freedom. Shane Geraghty will lead them from No 10 on his old stamping ground.
Bath v Worcester
The West Countrymen have the chance to hold Northampton’s feet to the fire when they meet the relegation favourites at The Rec, although Worcester will fight for every scrap of possession and inch of territory.
Rob Webber returns to the Bath pack after injury, while the exciting Anthony Watson returns to the right wing. The Midlanders will give 6ft 5in centre Andy Symons a first Premiership start and are ready to give their hosts a hurry-up. “There’s only one thing in our lives,” says rugby director Dean Ryan of the fight against the drop, “so the focus is very clear.”
Newcastle v Saracens
If Worcester draw a blank and Newcastle win, the relegation debate will end. It is, however, a mighty big “if”. The Tynesiders were pitiful at London Irish last time out, while Saracens played some terrific stuff in beating Northampton, although they tried hard to mess things up for themselves late on.
The leaders are resting plenty ahead of the Heineken Cup semi-final with Clermont Auvergne next weekend – only two automatic first-choicers will feature at Kingston Park, and one of those, the full-back Alex Goode, needs game time after injury – but it is a measure of their hosts’ poverty that they still start as favourites.
Wasps v Gloucester
Gloucester have endured a rough few days, beginning with European defeat at Wasps and continuing with a late reverse against Bath, with all its attendant disciplinary hassle. Things are unlikely to get any easier at Twickenham, for their hosts have players as influential as the wing Tom Varndell and flanker Ashley Johnson available after injury and can call on the full-back Andrea Masi, scrum-half Joe Simpson, prop Jake Cooper-Woolley and lock Kearnan Myall, all of whom missed last week’s trip to Leicester.
Exeter v Sale
It may be that the Sale bubble burst with a home-field hiding by Quins eight days ago. If so, Exeter are handily placed to take advantage and move into pole position for a European play-off spot. The northerners have never won at Sandy Park, but this might be a decent time to start, given that victory would guarantee them elite Euro rugby next season.