Hepher to measure Exeter progress in Northampton trip

Weekend Preview

Exeter have made themselves thoroughly at home since moving into the big league a couple of seasons back, but some parts of the Premiership neighbourhood have been less welcoming than others: notably Franklin's Gardens, which the Devonians regard, with good reason, as English rugby's equivalent of Muggers' Alley.

Last season, they went down 33-3 at Northampton – their worst defeat of the campaign by some distance. Tomorrow, they make the same trip in the knowledge that another below-par performance will equal another hiding.

Ali Hepher, once a Northampton outside-half and now assistant coach at the West Country club, said yesterday that the game would provide Exeter with a gauge with which to measure their progress. And measure they must, for by finishing fifth last term, they qualified for this season's Heineken Cup – not only a first for the club but an unexpectedly early first – and were promptly lumped in a group with such renowned no-hopers as Scarlets (the best attacking team in Wales), Clermont Auvergne (perennial challengers for the French title) and Leinster (not only the reigning European champions but a great side to boot).

Exeter could have lumps knocked off them over the six weekends of the Heineken pool phase, so they need to make hay while the sun shines. The bad news is that Haydn Thomas, their excellent scrum-half, is injured and Dean Mumm, their marquee signing from Australia, does not arrive in England until Monday. What is more, they must take on Northampton without Jason Shoemark, the capable midfielder from New Zealand, who pranged himself during last weekend's startling victory over Sale at Sandy Park.

Gloucester, none too pleased at losing narrowly to Northampton on home soil in the opening round, have made some interesting changes to their starting line-up for this afternoon's trip to London Irish, who had problems of their own on day one. Henry Trinder, quite a hit at outside centre this time last year, replaces dear old Mike Tindall in midfield – a switch many Kingsholmites would like to see made permanent, fitting neatly as it does with the youthful exuberance of Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, Charlie Sharples and Jonny May.

Up front, meanwhile, there is a first Premiership start for the 22-year-old tight-head prop Shaun Knight, a modern forward with some old-time mongrel about him.

If both sides find ways of putting some width on the ball, it could be the quickest game of the season by the kind of margin generally associated with Usain Bolt. May and Sharples may be blindingly quick, but do they have the straight-line speed to match Topsy Ojo and Marland Yarde, the London Irish wings? As there is also a history of how's-your-father between these two clubs, the Madejski Stadium is the place to be.

Unless, of course, the prospect of Danny Cipriani breaking new ground at a brand new stadium tickles the fancy. Sale's first competitive fixture at the City of Salford Stadium pits them against Saracens, whose continuing issues with back-row injuries paled into insignificance during the course of a comprehensive victory over London Irish at Twickenham last weekend. Charlie Hodgson, very much a man of Sale until his move south a year or so ago, will be on show again, flush from his crossing of the 2,000 Premiership points frontier, and his personal contest with Cipriani, making his first start since returning to England from Melbourne, will be fascinating.

As will the reaction of the incendiary Steve Diamond if Sale go down heavily for the second week running. The chief executive is not renowned for keeping his thoughts to himself, so earplugs may be required.

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