Aviva Premiership weekend preview: Make-or-break time
A look ahead to all this weekend's games
After last week’s gruelling European fixtures, the Aviva Premiership returns to centre-stage this weekend as we head to the business end of the season. With just three games to go till the play-offs, there are still many things to be decided; who will secure a play-off berth, the final Heineken Cup qualifying position and Premiership survival?
Sale Sharks look to have built enough of a gap between them and London Welsh, who look likely to go straight back down after one season in the top flight. However, they will need a win against Gloucester tonight to confirm their safety when the two meet at the Salford City Stadium.
Sharks' Director of Rugby announced this week that Welshman Andy Powell will be leaving the Salford club to switch codes and join up with the Wigan Warriors, and the Number 8 doesn't feature in the match day squad. The only change see's Will Addison come in on the right wing in place of Charlie Amesbury, meaning Danny Cipriani continues his role as a replacement for the starting Nick Macleod.
With Gloucester level on points with fourth-placed Northampton Saints, Director of Rugby Nigel Davies has retained the majority of his pack that suffered a comprehensive defeat to Biarritz last week in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final. The only change up front see's Huia Edmonds come in at hooker in place of Koree Britton, but there are four changes in the back-line with Dan Robson, Shane Monahan, Billy Twelvetrees and Rob Cook returning to the starting line-up.
Gloucester and England fans will be pleased to see that Ben Morgan (pictured) makes his return to action - albeit from the bench - as he has recovered from an ankle injury that he suffered in England's opening Six Nations victory against Scotland.
Saturday's action gets underway at the Twickenham Stoop with Harlequins hosting Bath, with both sides looking to return to winning ways following European quarter-final losses. Harlequins lost a frantic game to Heineken Cup veterans Munster, who arrived in London with a much larger fan-base than Quins allocated. This lead to the reigning Premiership champions releasing a statement that they will not tolerate any fans that sell their tickets to away fans, and that they will be fully investigated.
On the pitch, Conor O'Shea has made four changes to the starting line-up with Sam Smith, Matt Hopper, Joe Gray and Tom Guest starting in place of Ugo Monye, Tom Casson, Rob Buchanan and Maurie Fa'asavalu. For Monye, it is a significant blow to any Lions chances that he harboured, as there are just a handful of games before Warren Gatland announces his touring squad, and with Monye dropped to the bench, you have to think his slim chances of making that squad have all but extinguished.
Bath are without a number of their first-team players, with Tom Biggs, Nick Abendanon, Matt Banahan, Carl Fearns and Ben Skirving all ruled out through injury. However, Dave Attwood returns to partner captain Stuart Hopper in the second-row, with a further five changes to the side that lost to Stade Francais. Michael Claasens comes in for Peter Stringer at scrum-half, with the former Munster man now signed on at Bath for another season in the West Country. Stringer was the victim of a spitting incident that saw Stade scrum-half Jerome Fillol banned for 14 weeks for his actions.
Horacio Aguila moves to the wing to cover for Abendanon, with Olly Woodburn coming in for Biggs on the other wing. Semesa Rokoduguni comes in to partner Kyle Eastmond in the centre, while Ross Batty starts at hooker, with Eusebio Guinazu poised to make his debut from the bench. Stuart Taylor switches to Number 8 to cover for Skirving, with Mat Gilbert coming in at blindside flanker.
Exeter Chiefs host London Irish at Sandy Park with both teams still having something to play for. The Chiefs are just two points away from another season of Heineken Cup rugby, while Irish will be looking for one more victory to confirm their Premiership survival - though they look to be safe as they are provided London Welsh don't make the comeback of all comebacks.
Exeter retain many of the side that secured an away win against Worcester last time out, with just two changes to the starting line-up. Brett Sturgess comes into the front-row in place of Carl Rimmer, while Ben White is given the nod ahead of Dave Ewers in the back-row. On the bench, James Hanks has suffered a collarbone injury, and is replaced by Aly Muldowney.
London Irish recall Topsy Ojo and Jebb Sinclair to the starting line-up at wing and openside flanker respectively, while Leo Halavatau starts at tighthead prop. Darren Allinson will partner Ian Humpreys at half-back, and there is a welcome return to England prop Alex Corbisiero, who will feature from the bench.
For London Welsh, the situation they find themselves in continues to worsen as they welcome fourth-placed Saints to the Kassam Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Following their five-point deduction, Welsh look as good as down barring the greatest of Premiership comebacks, as they sit eight points off of eleventh-placed Sale.
They make four changes to the side that lost 40-25 to Bath two weeks ago, with Gonzalo Tiesi ruled out due to injury, forcing Tom Arscott to come in at full-back and Seb Jewell switching to inside centre with former Wales international Sonny Parker starting outside him. Wing Phil MacKenzie is also missing with injury, so Nick Scott will start in his place.
Saints will be looking for a much improved performance after their humbling defeat to rivals Leicester Tigers, and they take a full-strength team to the Kassam Stadium for their first trip in 10 years. England contingent Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood all start, while Stephen Myler continues to start at fly-half with Ryan Lamb on the bench. Luther Burrell starts at inside centre in place of Tom May, who drops to the bench, and George and Ken Pisi will start at outside centre and wing respectively.
Premiership leaders Saracens ring the changes for the visit of Worcester Warriors after their impressive victory over Ulster at Twickenham last week, as they push-on as the sole English team remaining in the Heineken Cup semi-finals. Flanker Jacques Burger will make his first start since December 2011 following his recovery from a serious knee injury, and there are also starts for Charlie Hodgson, Ryhs Gill, John Smit, George Kruis, Moritz Botha, Jackson Wray, Neil de Kock and Chris Wyles.
England fly-half Owen Farrell is rested from the squad, along with Schalk Brits, Alistair Hargreaves, Ernst Joubert and captain Steve Borthwick, so Scotland captain Kelly Brown will lead the side out at Allianz Park. The replacements see's youngsters Eoin Sheriff and Duncan Taylor earn a spot, while Alex Goode, Richard Wigglesworth and Mako Vunipola providing some international experience should they need it.
Worcester name Danny Gray at fly-half in place of veteran Andy Goode for the trip to Barnet, while the other change to the starting line-up see's John Andress replace Euan Murray at tighthead prop due to Murray's religious beliefs. The Warriors actually beat the league leaders 12-3 when the two met in November, with Saracens missing a number of first-team players due to the Autumn Internationals, and Worcester will be looking to take advantage of a similar situation with the number of players that Sarries have rested.
The final game of the weekend see's second-place Leicester Tigers entertain long-time rivals London Wasps at Welford Road. The Tigers will be playing at home for the first time since the beginning of March, and they will be hurting following their narrow loss to Toulon in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last time out.
Toby Flood again leads the side out, with Marcos Ayerza ruled out after suffering a broken collarbone last week. Logovi'i Mulipola replaces the Argentine, with Fraser Balmain taking Mulipola's vacant position on the bench. That change is the only one as Richard Cotterill seeks an improved performance from the side, meaning Martin Castrogiovanno and Thomas Waldrom will have to make an impact from the bench.
Wasps will be led out by centre Chris Bell for the first time due to Marco Wentzel ruled out through injury. Wentzel joins Hugo Southwell, Stephen Jones, T Rhys Thomas, Phil Swainston and Tim Payne on a lengthy injury list, but Wasps will still harbour hops of securing the final Heineken Cup qualifying place.
Premiership leading try-scorers Tom Varndell and Christian Wade continue on the wings with the former returning to his previous club, while Charlie Hayter starts alongside Bell in the centres. Charlie Davies starts at scrum-half in place of Joe Simpson, who drops to the bench, and Billy Vunipola returns to the back-row after starting from the bench last time out. James Cannon starts in the second-row, and internationals Joe Launchbury and Andrea Masi are both rested as Dai Young manages his side, who had the relieving news that local businessman Derek Richardson has become the Principal Shareholder of the club.
Aviva Premiership - Round 20:
Sale Sharks v Gloucester - Friday 7.45pm, Live on ESPN
Harlequins v Bath - Saturday 2.15pm, Live on ESPN
Exeter Chiefs v London Irish - Saturday 3pm
London Welsh v Northampton Saints - Sunday 3pm
Saracens v Worcester Warriors - Sunday 3pm
Leicester Tigers v London Wasps - Sunday 3.45pm, Live on Sky Sports 2.
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