Leicester v Wasps
There will be no Toby Flood at Welford Road this afternoon, just as there will be no Toby Flood at Murrayfield on Calcutta Cup day if Leicester's latest information is correct.
Their star outside-half, the undisputed number one No 10 in England now that Jonny Wilkinson has finished with internationals, has finally been diagnosed as having "tweaked" knee ligaments and will not play again for at least a month, which puts England's visit to Edinburgh on 4 February out of reach, even in the best-case scenario.
Still, the Tigers can field an interesting set of backs for today's meeting with Wasps, which used to be the highlight of the Premiership season but now has something ho-hum about it, thanks to the Londoners' fast-fading fortunes. Billy Twelvetrees, no one's idea of a defensive genius but a wonderful distributor who can throw million-dollar passes at pace, replaces Flood in the pivot position while Anthony Allen returns at inside centre after a frustrating spell of injury.
Wasps travel with a revamped back division after firing a volley of blanks at Worcester last weekend. Hugo Southwell and Richard Haughton start at full-back and wing respectively while Ryan Davis and Nic Berry link up as a fresh pair of halves.
Newcastle v Exeter
Early January it may be, but the Tynesiders are in must-win territory already. At 10 points adrift at the foot of the table, with only nine games left to them after this arm-wrestle with the hard-working Devonians, the fight against relegation is very much on – especially as their next two Premiership matches are against fellow strugglers in Bath and Wasps. They have lost their captain, James Hudson, to injury, so Tim Swinson returns to the engine room and Taiasina Tu'ifua starts at blind-side flanker.
Exeter had an unlucky time over the holidays, narrow defeats to London Irish and Harlequins costing them their place in the league's upper reaches. Today, Hoani Tui replaces John Andress at tight-head prop while Tom Johnson, struggling to maintain his form of last season, gets a run ahead of James Phillips in the back row.
Worcester v Gloucester
This has become a derby to savour, so it is no surprise that this afternoon's tussle at Sixways will unfold before a capacity crowd. Worcester's victory at Wasps last weekend lifted them clear of the bottom two but it came at a price: Ezra Taylor, their new back-row signing from Samoa, lasted approximately two minutes before ending his debut appearance on a stretcher, nursing a season-ending injury.
Gloucester, though, had a ball over the festive period and have selected a raft of players – Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder, Freddie Burns, Nick Wood, Luke Narraway – who merit some kind of England recognition, either at Six Nations or second-string Saxons level, over the coming weeks.
Saracens v Bath
The 2,000th game in Premiership history might have been played somewhere swish – Franklins Gardens, say, or the Stoop. Instead, the venue tomorrow will be Vicarage Road, where a well-placed hand grenade might easily cause a few hundred thousand pounds' worth of improvements. Still, the English champions have to perform somewhere, and just at the moment Saracens have no alternatives.
This should be an intriguing get-together, with the Sarries skipper Steve Borthwick, used and abused as England captain but treasured as a leader by his clubmates, taking on his former muckers at Bath. Matt Stevens, the England prop, is in a similar position, and his personal contest with the West Country prop Nathan Catt, who gave an eye-catching display against London Irish six days ago, will interest the national selectors.
London Irish v Sale
The Exiles dropped from third to sixth after losing at Bath last weekend, but that is not the extent of their problems. Delon Armitage, who has the disciplinary record from hell, starts again tomorrow, charged with the task of completing 80 minutes of rugby without visiting the sin bin, while Steven Shingler, the midfielder at the centre of a Test eligibility row between Scotland and Wales that is now being investigated by the International Rugby Board, is on the bench.Reuse content