Aviva Premiership weekend preview: Harlequins, Northampton and Gloucester battle for play-off places
Leicester Tigers will be looking to secure a home semi-final
With London Welsh’s relegation now confirmed following their 14-31 defeat against Northampton Saints last week, heads now turn to the top of the table as the Aviva Premiership reaches its penultimate round.
With Saracens the only team to have confirmed a home semi-final in the play-offs, Leicester Tigers will be looking to join them this weekend, while Harlequins, Saints and Gloucester battle it out for the remaining two qualifying positions. Meanwhile, Exeter Chiefs will be looking to hold off the chasing Bath and London Wasps for the all-important final Heineken Cup spot.
Two of those teams, Bath and Leicester, will get the action underway at The Rec as the first of five games on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers still have hopes of beating Saracens to the top spot, but they will be more concerned with securing their home semi-final berth with a victory against rivals Bath. The West Country side sit seventh in the table, just two points behind the Chiefs, and they will need a win if they wish to play premier European rugby next season.
Bath have rung the changes, with Ben Williams returning to outside centre to partner Kyle Eastmond. Michael Claasens and Stephen Donald re-form their half-back partnership for the final time in front of the Rec faithful before they move on to pastures new, and Rob Webber, Dominic Day and Guy Mercer all come into the pack. They are without captain Stuart Hooper, so flanker Francois Louw will lead out the side, and Nick Abendanon and Tom Biggs remain sidelined so Horacio Agulla and Semesa Rokoduguni will start on the wing, with Ollie Devoto continuing at full-back.
Leicester welcome back the England trio of Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft after they missed last week's bonus point victory over Wasps, while Thomas Waldrom and Steve Mafi will also start in the pack. Out wide, Matt Smith gets a start on the wing in place of Niall Morris, and club captain Geordan Murphy joins Dan Bowden on the bench, with the latter expected to sign with Sale Sharks for next season. Rob Hawkins, Ed Slator and Jordan Crane all drop to the bench.
Saracens can secure first place this weekend should the Tigers slip up in Bath, and they face a trip to Kingsholm to face out-of-form Gloucester in what should be a feisty encounter. Having rested many key players for last week's 47-17 demolition of Worcester Warriors, Saracens strength in depth has seen them rise to the top this season, and for a Gloucester side sitting five points off of fourth-placed Saints, the Cherry and Whites may see their faint play-off hopes extinguished this weekend.
Director of rugby Nigel Davies has made five changes to the Gloucester starting line-up, with Koree Britton and Shaun Knight replacing the injured Huia Edmonds and Dario Christolini, while there is a first start for England No 8 Ben Morgan since January 11th following his recovery from an ankle injury. Tom Savage switches to the second-row and leads the side out, while Sione Kalamafoni switches to blindside flanker. In the backs, Charlie Sharples returns to the wing, and Henry Trinder partners Billy Twelvetrees in the centre in place of Mike Tindall.
Sarries have recalled Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth, Steve Borthwick, Alistair Hargreaves, Will Fraser and Ernst Joubert to the starting line-up following their rest last week, with Chris Ashton, Kelly Brown and Brad Barritt rested this time round. David Strettle will continue on the wing following his record 21-minute hat-trick last week, while Charlie Hodgson retains the fly-half shirt, meaning Farrell will start at 12.
Relegated London Welsh already have uncertainties over their future, with major shareholder Kelvin Byron cutting his ties with the club at the end of the season. There are also doubts over their venue - the Kassam Stadium - and coach Lyn Jones, as well as their key players such as Gavin Henson and Gonzalo Tiesi.
However, they will want to go out with a bang, and having lost 10 games in a row since their win against the Exiles, they come up against a London Irish side who also have nothing left to play for having confirmed their safety last week despite a 27-6 drubbing to Exeter Chiefs. With both teams now free to play expansive rugby without the risk, the scoreboard could take-off at the Madejski Stadium with both teams playing attacking running-rugby.
Irish will be boosted by the return of No 8 Chris Hala'ufia and wing Marland Yarde, while Steven Shingler will partner Guy Armitage in the centre. England prop Alex Corbisiero continues his return from his knee injury as he makes his first start in his latest comeback, and club captain Declan Danaher returns from injury to feature from the bench.
Jones makes five changes to the London Welsh side, with them all coming in the backs. Seb Steggmann switches to outside centre from the wing allowing Sonny Parker to move inside him, while Nick Scott switches wings to make space for Dan Caprice on the left wing. Seb Jewell misses out with injury , while Tyson Keats replaces Alex Davies at scrum-half.
Worcester Warriors will host third-placed Harlequins without their head coach Richard Hill, who left the club earlier this week following their loss at Allianz Park. The Warriors didn't wait though in confirming that former Gloucester director of rugby Dean Richards will join up with the side from next season as they look to push on up the table. Quins, having lost three games on the spin, finally got a win to reignite their home semi-final hopes when they beat Bath 23-9 last week.
The Warriors recall Scotland International Euan Murray to their starting line-up along with former England fly-half Andy Goode, while Jon Clarke deputises at inside centre for the suspended Josh Matavesi. Wing Ben Howard will make his first Premiership start for the side, and for Goode and Matt Kvesic, it will be their farewell appearance at Sixways before they move on to Wasps, while Matt Mullan will be off to Gloucester.
Meanwhile, Harlequins name the same team that won the Premiership final in May 2012 for the first time this season, with Nick Easter making his 200th appearance for the club. Jordan Turner-Hall is recalled to inside centre, and Ugo Monye will return to the wing while second-row George Robson has recovered from a small knock last week to retain his place.
Northampton Saints host Sale Sharks in the late kick-off at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday, and a win will go a long way to deciding who will complete the top four this year. With Gloucester struggling in the last few weeks and hosting leaders Saracens on the same day, a win for Saints and a Gloucester defeat will see them home-and-dry for the all-important final play-off place.
The Sharks finally secured their Premiership survival last week with a resounding 32-9 victory over Gloucester at the Salford City Stadium, and they have found some form when it matters with two wins and a draw in their last three outings. With their safety confirmed, director of rugby Steve Diamond has already turned his attention to next year, but he has rubbished rumours that fly-half Danny Cipriani will leave the club with the former England International returning to the starting line-up for the clash with Saints.
Saints are without George Pisi so Tom May comes in to partner Luther Burrell in the centre, while Samu Manoa drops to the bench in favour of GJ van Velze. The rest of the team remains that which beat London Welsh last weeks, and barring a top-two finish, prop Brian Mujati will be making his final appearance at Franklin's Gardens.
Sale are without full-back Cameron Shepherd, so Mike Haley will deputise for the Australian, while Premiership all-time leading try-scorer Mark Cueto switches to outside centre as Jonny Leota moves inside to cover for Sam Tuitupou. Charlie Amesbury comes in on the wing, while there are four changes in the forwards. Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor Tom Holmes and Richie Vernon come in for Alasdair Dickinson, Marc Jones, Andrei Ostrikov and Dan Braid, and James Gaskell captains the side from the back-row.
London Wasps and Exeter Chiefs could not come into this tie with further contrasting form, with the High Wycombe-based side losing their last six games that has seen them slide down to eighth in the table. The Chiefs meanwhile have won four of their last five matches, a run that has seen them rise to sixth in the table and occupy that final Heineken Cup spot.
Wasps make seven changes to the side that lost at Welford Road, with Stephen Jones, T Rhys Thomas, Phil Swainston and James Haskell returning from injury, and England duo Joe Launchbury and Joe Simpson as well as Andrea Masi return to the starting line-up after being rested last week.
Exeter head coach Rob Baxter has named an unchanged side for Sunday's clash, meaning Richard Baxter will captain the side from No 8 and Hoani Tui will continue at hooker.
Aviva Premiership Round 21 fixtures...
Bath v Leicester, Saturday 2.15pm, Live on ESPN
Gloucester v Saracens, Saturday 3pm
London Irish v London Welsh, Saturday 3pm
Worcester Warriors v Harlequins, Saturday 3pm
Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks, Saturday 5.45pm, Live on Sky Sports 1
London Wasps v Exeter Chiefs, Sunday 2pm, Live on ESPN
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