Premiership preview: Stand-ins get Saints chance for full-on Saracens battle
Northampton v Saracens
In an ideal world, a Premiership match as significant as this afternoon's bout of M1 mayhem would be staged well away from any of the international windows. George North versus Chris Ashton on the wing; Alex Corbisiero against Matt Stevens at prop; Sam Dickinson-Billy Vunipola contest at No 8… how's that for a list of major attractions not available to the paying public? Sometimes, Test rugby simply gets in the way.
Still, the secondary characters will relish the chance to knock seven bells out of each other, especially in the absence of anything resembling mutual respect between the clubs. Saracens have been hit hard in midfield, but the low-profile centre partnership of Duncan Taylor and Chris Wyles has something going for it. Northampton have the stronger reinforcements, however. Ken Pisi, Calum Clark and the Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i are nobody's fools.
Newcastle v London Irish
These two have the look of bottom feeders about them, but maybe not rock-bottom feeders, thanks to Worcester. The Tynesiders have yet to stand tall in front of their own at Kingston Park – both of their league victories to date were recorded away from home – and their opponents tomorrow have the high-tempo game to make them sweat. Danny Barnes, recruited from Munster during the summer, gets a run in the Falcons midfield while the ultra-aggressive Tongan No 8 Chris Hala'ufia returns to the visitors' back row, which should liven things up a bit.
Wasps v Leicester
The Londoners believe they are getting there, albeit at the same slow speed as a Friday night train, and victory over a profoundly weakened Tigers side tomorrow would give their youngsters – the likes of Josh Bassett and Jake Cooper-Woolley – a lift in confidence. Elliot Daly, Tom Palmer and Ashley Johnson all return to add weight to the home line-up while the injury-hit champions are barely recognisable. Particularly in midfield, where the young Welsh outside-half Owen Williams and the imported centre Terrence Hepetema both feature.
Harlequins v Sale
Talking of injuries, Quins had squillions of them before last week's manning of the barricades at Clermont Auvergne and are now without their first-choice hooker Rob Buchanan, who ruptured a pectoral muscle in France and will not play again before January. Sale are close to full strength under the leadership of the excellent All Black flanker Dan Braid.
Exeter v Worcester
If Worcester have nothing else going for them right now, they can at least point to a front row worthy of the name. Agustin Creevy of Argentina, one of the sport's more formidable hookers, starts at Sandy Park today, as does the destructive Euan Murray of Scotland and the Tongan prop Ofa Fainga'anuku, a huge lump of a debutant. Exeter? They are taking no chance. Dean Mumm, Tom Johnson and Dave Ewers all start in the pack.
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