Fit-again imports can help Quins go from lean to mean
Harlequins v Gloucester
This week's England selection hardly reflected the fact that Harlequins, front-runners in all directions since the start of the season, are in the middle of a sticky patch: four players in the Six Nations party, another five in the second-string squad... not since the early 1990s, when the age-old city slicker image still had some substance to it, have the Londoners played such a strong hand representatively. But they are going through a lean spell all the same, even if it is the kind of lean spell for which Newcastle or Wasps would happily kill.
Quins' wonderful victory in Toulouse before Christmas breathed fresh life into their European campaign and victory in the all-Premiership contest at the Stoop this evening would leave them on the brink of a quarter-final place.
With their most effective foreign imports, the All Black outside-half Nick Evans and the Samoan flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu, back from injury, they will be close to full strength, although the in-form lock George Robson is short of fitness and sits this one out.
Gloucester still have an interest: not much of one, agreed, but enough to keep them honest. They travel full of intent, with their own Samoan, the fitfully brilliant Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, back in midfield. Sadly for Olly Morgan, the most orthopaedically challenged full-back in English rugby, impending knee surgery makes him a non-starter.
Saracens v Biarritz
Saracens are the best placed of a struggling English contingent, in that they lead their pool, but having had a gratifying week on the Six Nations selection front – four of tomorrow's starting back division are in contention for Calcutta Cup duty in three weeks' time – they are profoundly aware that tomorrow's game could go wrong in a big way.
The Basques have had a grisly time of it in domestic competition and were beaten by the Italians of Treviso in the third round of this tournament, but the return of arch-strategist Dimitri Yachvili from injury has sparked a resurgence.
By way of emphasising the point, they have players as good as Benoît Baby, Sylvain Marconnet and the extraordinary Imanol Harinordoquy on the bench.
London Irish v Cardiff Blues
Steven Shingler, the player at the centre of the knottiest eligibility row since the dark days of "Grannygate", might have started this last-chance match for London Irish had he not been dragged through the mill by the Scots (who want him for the Six Nations), the Welsh (who insist he's theirs) and the International Rugby Board (which agrees with Wales but is open to persuasion).
As it is, he will be among the replacements for a game the Exiles must win – and win well – if they are to stay in the competition.
This is a big ask, for Irish have made the campaign infinitely more difficult than it should have been. The Blues, meanwhile, have a quarter-final spot in their sights and cross the Severn Bridge with strength in all areas, from Leigh Halfpenny, Gavin Henson and Lloyd Williams in the backs to Gethin Jenkins, Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton up front.
Scarlets v Northampton
Ben Morgan fully expected to have the you-know-what rinsed out of him by his Llanelli-based clubmates after pledging his international future to England rather than Wales and he has not been disappointed. He will, however, start at No 8 this afternoon as the regional side attempt to take a significant step towards the knockout phase and kill off Northampton in the process.
Most of the big guns will be on view with George North, Scott Williams, Jon Davies and Rhys Priestland starting behind the scrum, hoping to be spoon-fed quality attacking ball by the new red-rose hotshot.
The Midlanders travel without England's captain-elect, Tom Wood, and the influential scrum-half Lee Dickson, but they are bang in form and well capable of avenging their defeat in the first of these meetings back in November.
Montpellier v Bath
The Python team would call this an ex-match before kick-off, for it is already as dead as that celebrated Norwegian Blue of theirs.
Bath look stronger than the Frenchmen, despite the absence of the injured World Cup-winning stand-off Stephen Donald, but does it matter? Not a jot.
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