Gloucester v Northampton
Some teams revert to type when they come under pressure. Gloucester? They revert to size.
Two very substantial citizens return to the Cherry and White line-up for today's meeting with Northampton: the wing Lesley Vainikolo, one of the bigger specimens in Premiership rugby at 6ft 2ins and 17st 8lbs, and the flanker Peter Buxton, who shades Vainikolo in the weights and measures department, if not by much. Judging by the way the West Countrymen were biffed around by London Irish six days ago, they need all the power they can lay their hands on.
Vainikolo has had his problems in recent months, and not just of the orthopaedic variety: he still has an assault charge hanging over him and expects to face a retrial. However, the Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath believes him to be fit, in mind as well as body, to make a first Premiership appearance since early January.
Redpath has been busy since the defeat at the Madejski Stadium, restoring James Simpson-Daniel and Mike Tindall to the three-quarters, introducing Dave Lewis at scrum-half, recalling Marco Bortolami at lock and reshaping his back row. Gareth Delve is the one fixed point in the loose trio, but he may not be fixed for long. Yesterday, he was cited for punching in the dying minutes of last week's game.
Northampton are still smarting over what they consider to have been daylight robbery at Wembley last week, where a perfectly good match-winning try against Saracens was disallowed by the "video referee". They are, however, beginning to find their feet away from home and are likely to be dangerous here.
Leicester v Newcastle
Welford Road, such a graveyard for visiting teams that it might be owned by the Grim Reaper himself, will break new ground this evening when 24,000 pitch up for the visit of Newcastle, who, in the post-Wilkinson era, are not exactly the biggest box-office side in the Premiership. This would be remarkable, but for the fact that Leicester rugby folk would happily pay good money to watch their beloved Tigers play Mothercare on a wet Wednesday night.
The Midlanders have four international backs unavailable through injury, but when they are playing at home, backs tend to be incidental. The most dynamic prop pairing in the country, Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni, are together once again and with Tom Croft, so successful with the Lions during the summer, partnering a capped All Black in Craig Newby, the back row looks equally useful. Newcastle have yet to lose. If they can still say that tonight, it will be remarkable indeed.
Harlequins v Saracens
Might things be calming down just a little in Transylvania-on-Thames? Quins have not had their name been dragged backwards through the slime for the best part of a week now, so it may be that the talk of blood capsules, lip-cutting and cover-ups is fading away – at least until Tom Williams, the wing at the centre of the scandal, returns from suspension.
The Londoners' trauma has allowed Saracens to recover from upheavals of their own in relative peace and quiet, and Brendan Venter's side go to the Stoop with two wins from two. But neither victory has been convincing, and with Wikus van Heerden missing from the back row, they will find themselves tested.
Wasps v Worcester
Paul Sackey, out of the England side and struggling for his position at Wasps, has a chance to put himself back on track as a result of David Lemi's injury problems.
Worcester are not the best travellers, but they won at Wasps last season and have an obdurate air about them.
Leeds v London Irish
The Exiles are playing the brightest rugby in England and will expect to win at Headingley, despite the loss of the England full-back Delon Armitage to injury. Faan Rautenbach, one of the heaviest scrummagers in the league, returns to the front row while the goal-kicking Peter Hewat replaces Armitage.Reuse content