Depleted Quins need Clegg to take his chance
Exeter v Harlequins
Suddenly, things are not so easy. Four days after suffering their first Premiership defeat of the season, Harlequins must travel to the far south-west, hardly their kind of place, and attempt to deal with the most cussed side in the tournament without the help of three of their high-performance specialists. The England No 8 Nick Easter, the Samoan flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu and, perhaps crucially, the All Black outside-half Nick Evans are unfit. Tom Guest, Luke Wallace and Rory Clegg are the men who must make light of those absences. Best of luck to them.
Clegg has been mentioned in some quarters as a possible England contender in the medium term, although it is difficult to see how a No 10 who plays so little first-team rugby can be ranked above Freddie Burns of Gloucester or Ryan Lamb of Northampton. Today's game, therefore, is an opportunity for him to prove he can manage affairs in unpropitious circumstances.
The Devonians dropped from third to eighth after losing at London Irish on Tuesday, a clear indication of the tournament's in-built competitiveness. A repeat of last season's comfortable victory over Quins at Sandy Park will almost certainly see them reclaim a position in the top six and with four winnable league games ahead of them, their challenge for Heineken Cup rugby next term has substance.
Newcastle v Northampton
For Newcastle, winnable games are at a premium: their league position – bottom, adrift by six points – tells us that much. Yet they are slowly re-establishing their Kingston Park home as a place of security: not a fortress, by any stretch of the imagination, but something slightly more difficult to ransack than a cardboard box with one of its sides missing. They have not been beaten there in seven games and with Jimmy Gopperth, the New Zealander who has played a heroic hand at outside-half since arriving in 2009, still kicking goals in his sleep, there is at least a chance of the Tynesiders taking something from today's game.
Northampton are in a slightly odd place: their Premiership form is good and getting better – five wins in six – but the growing fuss over their England wing Chris Ashton and his plans to leave the club are a distraction. Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby, would no doubt be delighted if the man currently playing in the suspended Ashton's position, the impressive Russia international Vasily Artemyev, catches the eye again.
Bath v London Irish
A desperately difficult game for Bath... but then, they're all difficult these days. The West Countrymen have not won a Premiership match since beating these self-same opponents in Reading at the back end of October by the grand total of a single point. Can they drag something similar from themselves tomorrow, thereby easing the pressure on Sir Ian McGeechan, currently experiencing one of the less enjoyable spells in his long coaching career? No one at the Recreation Ground is wholly confident.
Matt Banahan, who spent time at London Irish as a second row before moving to Bath and mutating into a giant wing, plays in midfield– not at outside centre, where the last England management regime thought he might make a fist of it without ever seeming completely convinced, but at inside centre, where his lack of a kicking game will leave Stephen Donald shouldering the entire tactical burden.
Saracens v Gloucester
Saracens pulled out all the stops to prevail over Harlequins in front of 82,000 supporters on Tuesday, so when they attempt to back that up in front of the proverbial two men and a single dog at Watford tomorrow, they will do so without some star turns. Owen Farrell drops to the bench while the high-class No 8 Ernst Joubert has a day off. Naturally, there is no rest for Steve Borthwick, the nearest thing to a workaholic in English professional rugby. Outstanding against Quins, he leads the side from lock once again.
Wasps v Worcester
The Londoners, badly in need of a lift after a miserable run of league defeats stretching back two months, have Jonathan Poff, their flanker from New Zealand, back between the shafts in a new-look breakaway unit featuring Tinus du Plessis, the new signing from Namibia, and the well-regarded youngster Sam Jones.
Worcester, a mere three points behind their hosts in the lower reaches of the league, give a debut to the Samoan No 8 Ezra Taylor.
Leicester v Sale
Stuart Lancaster and his fellow England caretaker coaches, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, will be interested to see how the Leicester midfield man Billy Twelvetrees performs, given the continuing conundrum at inside centre.
They will also be keen to run the rule – a long rule at that – over the line-out specialist Graham Kitchener, who forms a fresh second-row partnership with Ed Slater following injuries to Louis Deacon and George Skivington.
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