Aviva Premiership weekend preview: Saracens and Leicester Tigers battle for top spot
The final round of fixtures take place this weekend
Eight months of hard work, commitment and passion sees the Aviva Premiership reach its final round on Saturday, as all 12 teams kick-off their final regular season game in unison. For some there is still much to be decided, and for others, attentions may have already turned to where they will be spending their summer – Australia or otherwise.
Saracens and Leicester Tigers will battle it out for the top spot, and while the 2010/11 Premiership champions may look odds-on to claim it, they will not have enjoyed the back-to-back defeats at the hands of Gloucester and Toulon - the latter coming in a painful Heineken Cup semi-final defeat following yet another master class from a Mr J Wilkinson.
Similarly, Leicester will want to secure a home semi-final, and while mathematically Harlequins can still overtake them, it will take the most catastrophic of performances against London Irish to slip up at this point of the season, not to mention a bonus point victory at home against the Northampton Saints for the reigning champions.
Relegation is decided, and the rollercoaster that is London Welsh will soon be slipping back to the championship, should their future be secured amid all the rumours of financial troubles. After a gutsy season, it would be nothing short of a tragedy if the club was to lose everything it has worked so hard to gain in the last few years.
Eyes are once again on Europe, and following a surprising win against the Tigers last time out, Bath have put themselves firmly in the hunt for Heineken Cup qualification. Exeter Chiefs currently hold the crucial sixth position by a margin of two points, and Bath will have to travel to Allianz Park and come away with a win against the league leaders if they wish to stand a chance.
Exeter will host the fifth-placed Gloucester at Sandy Park, and a win for the home side could see them leapfrog the Cherry and Whites in the final standings. For head coach Rob Baxter, it is another remarkable achievement considering their promotion to the top flight was just three years ago.
Should they beat Gloucester, they will finish in the same spot that they did last year, and it would be a fitting way for No 8 Richard Baxter to finish his career when he will lead the Chiefs out for the final time after a 16-year career with the club. His namesake, Rob, names the same squad that beat Wasps at Adams Park a fortnight ago.
Gloucester will be looking for a win as they are not as safe as they appear. Should they lose to Exeter, Bath will need a bonus point victory and an 8-point swing to eliminate Gloucester from Heineken Cup qualification, and while that may be hard to see for Bath, their rivals will want to eliminate any chance that Bath may have with a victory of their own.
Director of Rugby Nigel Davies also selects the same XV that triumphed two weeks ago, meaning that Mike Tindall and Shane Monahan can only make do with a place on the bench, alongside the returning Darren Dawidiuk after suspension. Both Billy Twelvetrees and Ben Morgan start having been snubbed for the Lions squad earlier this week.
An eagerly anticipated match at the Twickenham Stoop sees Harlequins host Northampton Saints in a winner-takes-third situation. With both teams already secured in the play-offs, the game may open up as both teams will look to play attacking rugby, and with neither a trip to Allianz Park or Welford Road anyone's pick, the result won't concern either side too much.
Quins recall Tom Casson to partner George Lowe in the centres, while there is a back-row shake-up with Tom Guest replacing Maurie Fa'asavalu and Luke Wallace replacing England captain Chris Robshaw, who is recovering from a knock. Robshaw is another who surprisingly missed the cut for the Lions, and after another outstanding season, he will want to finish the club season strong to show Warren Gatland what he is missing.
Saints welcome back George Pisi to play outside Luther Burrell in the centre and Samu Manoa returns to No 8 replacing GJ Van Velze, who drops to the bench. Their strong England contingent of Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood may all be called up for England's tour of Argentina, and they all start alongside captain and Lions tourist Dylan Hartley, he beat Irish hooker Rory Best to the final spot in the touring party.
Leicester Tigers will look to apply the pressure on Saracens in the hope that they slip up as they entertain London Irish at Welford Road. Club captain Geordan Murphy returns to full-back in place of Mathew Tait, and he is joined in the starting line-up by prop Martin Castrogiovanni, whose future remains unclear as he is tipped to join Heineken Cup finalists Toulon at the end of the season.
All six of Leicester's Lions tourists feature in the match-day squad, with Manu Tuilagi, Ben and Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft all starting while Dan Cole will feature from the bench.
George Skivington will lead out the Exiles against his former club in a game that has little meaning for Irish. They sit in ninth, two points ahead of Worcester and four ahead of Sale, and with a Tigers side with their sights set on top-spot, they may find themselves on the end of a hefty defeat.
London Welsh host Worcester Warriors in their final Premiership game at the Kassam Stadium, and they will look to go out on a high against the side two places above them. Welsh have not won in their last 12 games, and it'll be a big ask to change that form with most players concerned about their future beyond Saturday's encounter.
Head coach Lyn Jones makes six changes to his side that lost to London Irish, with James Lewis replacing injured centre Sonny Parker, and Rob Lewis comes in for scrum-half Tyson Keats. In the pack, Arthur Joly replaces Paulica Ion in the front-row, while a back-row shuffle sees Daniel Browne move to the blindside, with Alfie To'oala inheriting the No 8 shirt and Lee Beach replacing Michael Hills at openside in what will be his last appearance before retirement.
Worcester name No 8 Richard de Carpentier in the starting line-up alongside Sam Betty and Neil Best in the back-row as one of three changes to the side which lost to Harlequins. De Carpentier will be making his Aviva Premiership debut after he celebrated his 23rd birthday on Tuesday. Andy Goode, Matt Mullan and Andy Short will be making their final appearances for the club, while there is no swansong for flanker Matt Kvesic, who misses out on the squad.
Sale Sharks will celebrate their Premiership survival as they host London Wasps at the Salford City ground in the knowledge that they are the first Premiership side to have survived relegation having been on the bottom at Christmas.
The Sharks make a high-profile change at fly-half, with Nick Macleod replacing the injured Danny Cipriani, who was hit by a bus on a team night out in Leeds which left the former England International requiring medical attention as he remained in hospital overnight with concussion.
Elsewhere, Sam Tuitupou returns to a side led out by flanker Dave Seymour, while replacement Andy Powell will be making his final appearance in rugby union before he crosses codes to join the Wigan Warriors. Richie Gray is still not fit enough for selection having been named in Gatland's Lions squad, meaning he will depart the club as he moves back north of the border to Glasgow Warriors without one last goodbye.
Wasps director of rugby Dai Young names both Christian Wade and Tom Varndell in his starting line-up as the two battle it out for the accolade of top try-scorer this season. Varndell has claimed the trophy twice before, and he leads Wade by 13 tries to eleven, while Wade will be making his 50th appearance for the club at the slender age of 21. The departing Billy Vunipola will be making his final appearance before he joins brother Mako at Saracens, as well as Zak Taualfo, Jonathan Poff, T Rhys Thomas and Lorenzo Romano - who will all be moving to pastures new - all start on the bench.
Saracens make four changes to the team that lost at Twickenham last week with one eye on next week's play-off semi-final. Alex Goode is rested, so Chris Wyles starts at full-back and Owen Farrell switches to inside centre to cover for the injured Brad Barritt, who limped out of last week's game with an ankle injury.
Charlie Hodgson starts at fly-half alongside Neil de Kock, who replaces Richard Wigglesworth and Andy Saull will make his final appearance for Sarries before he moves north to join the Newcastle Falcons, deputising for the injured Ernst Joubert.
Bath retain the side that secured the bonus point victory in front of the Rec faithful over long-time rivals Leicester Tigers, and they will be looking for more of the same if they want any chance of Heineken Cup rugby next season. Half-back pairing Michael Classens and Stephen Donald will be making their final appearances for the club before they move on, along with No 8 Simon Taylor who will also leave the club at the end of the season.
Francois Louw captains the side and he joins Taylor in the back-row along with Guy Mercer, who signed a new contract with the club earlier this week. On the bench, there is room for fit again Tom Biggs after the winger was sidelined with injury, and former Ireland and Heineken Cup winning scrum-half Peter Stringer, who will remain with the West Country outfit next season.
Aviva Premiership Round 22...
Exeter Chiefs v Gloucester Rugby, Saturday, 2.30pm. Live on ESPN Classic.
Harlequins v Northampton Saints, Saturday, 2.30pm. Live on ESPN.
Leicester Tigers v London Irish, Saturday, 2.30pm.
London Welsh v Worcester Warriors, Saturday, 2.30pm.
Sale Sharks v London Wasps, Saturday, 2.30pm.
Saracens v Bath, Saturday, 2.30pm. Live on Sky.
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