Pressure grows as the new boys prepare to run Saints gauntlet
Northampton v Exeter
Suddenly, it's not quite so much fun. Exeter enjoyed two early days in the sun after materialising in the top flight of English rugby – two and a half, if you count the excellent 40 minutes they produced at Leicester a three weeks ago – and much was written about their chances of putting the cat amongst the pigeons by staying up.
Then, last weekend, they were run off their feet by Harlequins. Today? Why, it's Northampton. Up there. As Basil Fawlty said through gritted teeth while shaking his fist at the heavens: "Thank you, God. Thank you so bloody much."
Northampton do not lose many at Franklin's Gardens; indeed, they take great delight in smashing their visitors to kingdom come, as Bath discovered to their acute embarrassment just recently. Jim Mallinder, the Saints' coach, could be heard paying Exeter all the proper compliments yesterday – he highlighted the solid foundations laid by his opposite number, Rob Baxter, and praised the Devonians' spirit of togetherness – but the fact remains: if Exeter return home with anything better than a 20-point beating to their name, it will be a triumph.
They will not have Dylan Hartley to worry about, for the in-form England hooker is being rested under the terms of the Elite Player Squad agreement. Yet there is no respite. Euan Murray, the devoutly Christian tight-head prop who refuses to play on the Sabbath, is happy to turn out on a Saturday and therefore makes his first start of the season. As Murray is among the two or three most destructive scrummagers in Europe on a good day, the potential for carnage is obvious.
Exeter have picked the Fijian wing Sireli Naqelevuki, their recent signing from the Cape Town-based Super 14 outfit Stormers, while the centre Phil Dollman and the loose forward Chad Slade come in for Nic Sestaret and James Phillips, both of whom picked up injuries during the heavy defeat at Quins. At least they are realistic. "We always knew we'd get results like that, even if we didn't want to get them," admitted Ali Hepher, their assistant coach. "But the things that went wrong last week are easy to fix. We'll be the better for it."
London Irish v Leeds
There is no getting away from it: Leeds are in a state. Winless and bottom of the table, their trip to an increasingly confident London Irish this afternoon will tell an interesting tale, for if they fail to front up against the Exiles, the phrase "long old season" will be on the lips of an ever-growing number of Yorkshire rugby pessimists.
Humiliated at Leicester last weekend, the Leeds pack has been heavily revamped. Steve Thompson, first-choice hooker for England on the summer tour of Australia, has been relegated to the bench while Sean Hohneck replaces Tom Denton in the engine room. There are also places for Kearnan Myall and Danny Paul in the back row.
London Irish will be led by the fine Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua, who makes his 100th appearance for the club. Toby Booth, the head coach, makes just one change from the side that won handsomely at Newcastle last time out, Alex Corbisiero coming in at tight-head prop for Faan Rautenbach.
Harlequins v Newcastle
Newcastle, another club with a bad case of the struggles, will have a new look to them when they materialise at the Stoop. Alan Tait, fast discovering just how hard rugby life can be up there in the far north-east, has introduced six players into his starting line-up: the full-back Jeremy Manning, the wing Luke Fielden, the centre Rob Vickerman, the scrum-half Chris Pilgrim, the prop Grant Shiells and the flanker Will Welch. A sign of discontent? Let's put it this way: Alex Tait, Gcobani Bobo, Micky Young and Jon Golding are not generally considered to be Falcons' bench-fodder.
The Londoners stick with the side that gave Exeter a seeing-to in the capital last weekend, so there is another chance to assess the much talked-about prop Joe Marler.
Saracens v Leicester
Saracens were impressive in beating Northampton six days ago – especially up front, where they won the wet-weather arm-wrestle against a pack seemingly equipped with the heavier weaponry. Tomorrow, they take on another set of ambitious East Midlanders in the shape of the champions. Leicester are travelling light, however: no Geordan Murphy or Alesana Tuilagi, no Ben Youngs or Thomas Waldrom. The Tigers are never less than bullish about their chances of victory, but this one could be a stretch for them, especially as the Sarries captain Steve Borthwick is back in form and, more to the point after this week's shenanigans, back from the Munich beer festival.
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