Johnson holds his breath as top two prepare for tough battle

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The Independent Online

Leicester v Northampton

Competitive animal that he was, Martin Johnson used to live for games like this evening's East Midlands derby at Welford Road – a 24,000 sell-out, with local pride and a place at the top of the Premiership table among the rewards for the triumphant.

Competitive animal that he is, the England manager must be dreading it. Half a dozen of Johnson's starting line-up for the Six Nations opener with Wales in early February will be smashing seven bells out of each other from the kick-off, with a seventh joining the fray from the bench at some point during proceedings. The potential for injury fallout is very high indeed.

Northampton like to play a confrontational game. They dish it out up front, hit unusually hard in midfield, make it their business to scrummage the living daylights out of their opponents and invariably ride roughshod over any poor sod they happen to come across laying on the floor. Funnily enough, this is how Leicester like to play too, hence the "full metal jacket" dimension to tonight's game.

A week after their inexplicable implosion against Harlequins, the visitors will be bristling. Jim Mallinder, their director of rugby, rarely has to aim sharp words at his players these days, but he openly confessed to his deep disappointment at their performance last time out and has challenged people to right their own wrongs by sticking with them for this one. He has made only a single change, calling in Ryan Powell at scrum-half for the injured Lee Dickson.

For their part, the new league leaders have bolstered the back five of their scrum by recalling George Skivington at lock and Thomas Waldrom at blind-side flanker. As expected, the England outside-half Toby Flood starts after performing the substitute duties at Exeter six days ago.

Saracens v London Irish

Wot, no Gav? If Watford's sequined set are seen Military Two-Stepping their way out of Vicarage Road in protest, Saracens will have only themselves to blame. Their decision to drop Gavin Henson to the bench for tomorrow's important fixture will disappoint those who bought their tickets with a little stargazing in mind, but the Welshman is likely to play some sort of part, especially if the visitors threaten to end a grisly run of nine defeats by leading after an hour.

Three full internationals – the England wing David Strettle, the Italy prop Carlos Nieto and the Scotland back-rower Kelly Brown – return for Saracens, while the Exiles will attempt to improve their game management by running the New Zealand import Daniel Bowden in the No 10 position.

Bath v Leeds

Had this game been played last week, it would have been between two of the worst performing clubs in the country. As it is, it will be played today between two sides suddenly feeling a whole lot better about themselves. Bath's victory at London Irish seven days ago may have been a final-kick-of-the-day job, but it was hugely welcome all the same. Leeds, meanwhile, wrestled their way past Gloucester and will be more of a handful because of it. Unsurprisingly, the Yorkshiremen are unchanged. Bath have made one change, choosing Nick Abendanon ahead of Matt Carraro on the wing.

Gloucester v Exeter

Gloucester lost at Exeter on the opening day of the season because their tactics were hopelessly wrong – fancy not contesting the line-out against a team of Premiership newcomers who started the game worried they might not lay hands on the ball – and their skills were hopelessly inadequate. They have improved a fair bit in all respects since then, notwithstanding last week's defeat at Leeds, but so too have the Devonians, and the home side will need to draw on the "Kingsholm effect" to quell the uprising this afternoon. Exeter have Gareth Steenson back at outside-half; Gloucester have brought the impressive Charlie Sharples into their back line for Lesley Vainikolo.

Harlequins v Wasps

No fewer than 21 of Quins' 23-man squad for today's derby are England-qualified – how the Rugby Football Union wallahs over the road will love them for it – while Wasps have a more exotic look to them. The absences of Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley, rested under the rules governing players in the Test squad, will not help the visitors' cause.

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