Premiership play-offs: World Cup selections will spice up play-offs

Northampton take on Saracens before Bath face old rivals Leicester

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The Independent Online

Northampton v Saracens (Saturday, 2pm)

A Premiership semi-final is an end in itself, but this potentially fiery meeting between two powerhouse clubs who have very little time for each other will also be viewed through the prism of the forthcoming World Cup – not least by the two members of the England hierarchy making the trip to Franklin’s Gardens, the forwards strategist Graham Rowntree and backs coach Andy Farrell.

Two prime candidates for the red-rose No 1 shirt, Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola, will be on show, with Corbisiero desperate to make up lost ground.

There will also be some fun and games on the blind-side flank, where the experienced Tom Wood confronts the young pretender, Maro Itoje, whose recent form for Saracens has been off the scale.

In addition, it is fair to suggest that Rowntree might feel a little daft if the uncapped Sarries hooker Jamie George, one of the players of the  season in any position, gives the England incumbent Dylan Hartley the kind of hurry-up that Hartley once gave to  everyone else.


Without question, George deserved to be included in the World Cup training squad named three days ago. The fact that he was overlooked will be an inspiration to him.

The visitors, who lost to Northampton in the last extra-time act of last year’s final, feel obliged to leave Chris Ashton, back in the England mix after a lengthy absence, on the bench. The wing has been struggling with illness.

Bath v Leicester (Saturday, 5pm)

Whisper it quietly, but there is not a great deal of love lost between these two, either. Leicester’s attacking game has been misfiring all season, so the chances of them playing fast and loose against the Premiership’s cutting-edge outfit are somewhere close to zero.

Not that this will worry the Tigers, who would be planning a no-holds-barred arm wrestle even if they were scoring tries at the rate of four a game, rather than four a month.

Bath have selected Ross Batty ahead of the England squad member Rob Webber at hooker, thereby underlining the error of England’s ways in the No 2 position, while the captain Stuart Hooper is back in the engine room as motivator-in-chief.

Stuart Hooper returns to lead Bath

The rest of the side pretty much picked itself, although the likes of Matt Garvey and Carl Fearns will be looking enviously at Sam Burgess as the late back-row arrival continues to hog the big chances in the big games.

The collision between Burgess and Ed Slater, in Tiger stripes once again after a season-long injury, should be every bit as fascinating as that between Wood and Itoje at Northampton. Connoisseurs of the back-row arts are in for a treat.

Gloucester v Connacht (Sunday, 3.30pm)

Talking of loose combinations, Gloucester go into their European Champions Cup play-off against the least fashionable but most stubbornly competitive of the four Irish provinces without their first-choice back row. Sione Kalamafoni and Ben Morgan are injured; Matt Kvesic is suspended.

Matt Kvesic is suspended for Gloucester

If Gloucester are to make it through to next weekend’s decider against French opponents yet to be confirmed, the inexperienced unit of Jacob Rowan, Dan Thomas and Ross Moriarty will have to grow  up fast.