Bath v Leicester
There are strong rumours at the Recreation Ground that Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, will make a serious attempt to lure the stellar All Black outside-half Dan Carter to the West Country following this autumn's World Cup – a move that would involve squaring up to the moneybags teams in the French Top 14 league, as well as convincing the rest of the Premiership that salary cap rules are not being flouted. Bath lose two of their expensive Springboks, the midfielder Butch James and the back-row forward Luke Watson, at season's end and therefore have some financial wriggle-room, but even so...
All this will be of interest to Leicester, who are with Bath in wishing the cap would go away. The champions were keen on the services of the Wallaby centre Adam Ashley-Cooper – who wouldn't be? – but were priced out of the market at an early stage. Now that Ashley-Cooper has decided to stay in Australia anyway, there is no point revisiting the issue. If they want a southern hemisphere top-ranker to bring a cutting edge to the back division, they will have to look elsewhere.
Interestingly, Bath have declined to pick the first-choice England centre Shontayne Hape in their starting line-up, even though Olly Barkley is out for the season. Sam Vesty, recruited from Leicester last spring, plays at No 12 with the promising Ben Williams outside him. Leicester, as is their wont, are not messing around. Most of their England brigade – Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Tom Croft – will begin this afternoon's game. Louis Deacon would have joined them, but for injury.
London Irish v Exeter
The Exiles expect a crowd of around 20,000 for today's meeting with the undisputed successes of this season's tournament, and at least 19,999 of them will be wondering what the hell is happening at the Madejski Stadium. Good players – the Samoan Test regulars Seilala Mapusua and George Stowers included – are leaving at the end of term, and form remains an issue. Two Premiership wins in 10? Crikey.
Delon Armitage, suitably contrite after his well-earned suspension for abusing a dope-testing officer back in January, returns to the side at full-back, and on the face of it, the hosts have too much class to be seriously pressed by the Devonians. But Exeter have been hearing that message for seven months now, and have not taken a blind bit of notice.
"The nice thing," said their coach, Rob Baxter, "is that we're out of the relegation dogfight and can look at the teams above us. We're not getting carried away, but the points gap is relatively small." Victory this afternoon would take Exeter above... London Irish.
Harlequins v Gloucester
Gloucester have won five Premiership games on the bounce – not to mention an Anglo-Welsh title – and are in as good a place as any team in the tournament. So good, in fact, that they can make seven changes to their pack from last week's cup final victory over Newcastle and legitimately claim to be every bit as strong, if not stronger.
Only Luke Narraway, the form No 8 in England, keeps his place in the pack – the Fijian forward Akapusi Qera, who also played six days ago, switches flanks for the trip to the Stoop – but with the likes of Scott Lawson, Dave Attwood and Alasdair Strokosch back between the shafts, they should ask some big question of their hosts.
Northampton v Wasps
Northampton could do with nailing a decent Premiership result at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow, having drawn a blank there since beating London Irish last November. Predictably, all their England contingent – Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood – have been pulled straight into the starting team. Rob Webber returns to the middle of the front row for Wasps, with international forwards Sakaria Taulafo and Simon Shaw around him.
Saracens v Newcastle
Saracens may or may not go top this weekend: whatever, they are a team on the rise, with a run of five league victories behind them. It will be a surprise of considerable proportions if the Tynesiders, spanked by Gloucester last weekend, find a way of taking something from the game.Reuse content