Gloucester v Northampton
Gloucester are one of Premiership rugby’s ever-presents – along with their great rivals Bath and a small handful of others, they have never been anywhere south of the top flight – and no one seriously expects a side blessed with so exhilarating a back division to risk their status this time round. But facts are facts: the Cherry and Whites are 80 minutes away from their worst start to a season since the last revamping of the domestic game 16 years ago.
Northampton, by contrast, know exactly what it feels like to drop down a level, but they were good enough to reach last season’s grand final and are now in a position to push even harder for the title, having bought big – physically, as well as reputationally – during the summer. Should the Midlanders win at Kingsholm today, they will maintain a 100 per cent record while condemning their hosts to an unprecedented third defeat in three.
Without Nick Wood, predictably suspended for a chunk of time after his head-rucking antics at Saracens, Gloucester have installed Dan Murphy at loose-head prop and will give the England Under-20 lock Elliott Stooke a first Premiership start. Jimmy Cowan, the All Black scrum-half, replaces Tavis Knoyle at the heels of an underpowered pack.
Saracens v Bath
Bath have won both of their opening fixtures, as have Saracens, so this is seen as a significant fixture. Yet the question has to be asked: do the West Countrymen genuinely believe they can win on the artificial turf up there on the northern edge of the capital? By demoting three of their most influential forwards – the prop Paul James, the lock Dave Attwood and the flanker Matt Garvey will all be both be shining the pine tomorrow – they are not making much in the way of a statement of intent.
George Ford, the much talked-about newcomer at No 10, is also among the replacements, and while Tom Heathcote is nobody’s mug as an outside-half, the selection seems just a little peculiar. Saracens, meanwhile, are in full warpaint, with Mako Vunipola and Schalk Brits returning to the front row and the England full-back Alex Goode making a first appearance of the season in the No 15 shirt.
London Irish v Exeter
London Irish have been widely dismissed as relegation fodder and it is undeniably true that their squad, stripped bare by Bath with a little help from Leicester and Northampton, looks on the anaemic side of weak. Yet they landed a solid blow by winning at Worcester seven days ago, albeit in the last minute with a little help from the referee, and they are not completely ignorant of what it takes to beat the Devonians, having won four of the last half-dozen league contests between the teams.
Exeter have made two changes, one of them positional, to the side that saw off Wasps last time out, Tom Johnson shifting across the back row for the injured Dave Ewers at No 8 and Ben White filling the hole on the blind-side flank. The Exiles, who yesterday signed the unusually substantial lock Ian Nimmo on loan from Newport Gwent Dragons as cover for the incapacitated George Skivington and Kieran Low, have been forced into a couple of reshuffles, but their principal attacking threat, the new England wing Marland Yarde, is present and correct.
Leicester v Newcastle
Newcastle’s second-string side beat Leicester’s “stiffs” 20-13 earlier this week, but the notion that their rugby director Dean Richards, a revered Tiger of old, will be celebrating a similar result at Welford Road today is surely for the birds. The champions have the Prime Minister’s new best friend, Manu “Bunny Ears” Tuilagi, back in midfield and restored another of the summer’s Lions, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, to active duty. And should they find themselves in unexpected trouble, they can always bring Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and the masterly Julian Salvi off the bench.