Gloucester v Harlequins
Heineken Cup qualification failures have precious little to recommend them: for one thing, the absence of a Toulouse or a Munster from the fixture list impacts on the price a club can charge for a season ticket; for another, it condemns a team to six weeks of anonymity in the ... what's it called again? Exactly. Let's settle for the "other tournament" and have done with it.
Yet Gloucester expect to benefit from a fortnight spent in the quiet backwater of second-tier European competition. After a rough start to the Premiership campaign, they clawed themselves into the top half of the table with a skin-of-the-teeth victory over Wasps and a strikingly passionate one at Bath six days later. A chance to recharge the batteries was welcome indeed.
Quins also failed to make the Heineken cut, so they should be equally full of vim and vigour at Kingsholm this afternoon. Indeed, the contest could be the most expansive of the season to date, and if it catches fire, it should showcase the talents of some of the brightest young midfield talent around. Jordan Turner-Hall and George Lowe give the Londoners an iron fist-velvet glove combination at centre, while the West Countrymen have been highly impressed by the efforts of the 21-year-old Henry Trinder in recent weeks.
Mike Tindall, the fourth centre in the starting line-ups, cannot fairly be described as young, but the England coaches will be interested to see how he shapes up against a quicksilver back division. If the vitamin supplements work, his next appearance will be against the All Blacks at Twickenham. And they really are fast.
Leicester v Bath
Bath's powers of invention know no bounds when it comes to dreaming up new ways of losing rugby matches, but they will not have to ransack their imagination to finish second at Welford Road this afternoon. Leicester were utterly ruthless in smithereening Scarlets all over the East Midlands last time out, and while they have opted to give their first-choice props a breather, their generosity is less than overwhelming. Both Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni will be on the bench, ready and willing to contribute should they be called upon, and besides, the latter's replacement is Dan Cole, who just happens to be England's preferred option on the tight head of the scrum.
The visitors have recalled David Flatman to their front row, relegating the younger, faster but infinitely greener Nathan Catt to replacement duty. Unfortunately, another of Bath's dwindling number of heavy-duty tight forwards, Danny Grewcock, is out of commission through injury. Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, the grand old Argentine lock, makes a first start in his stead.
"You have to be brave and play a good-paced game if you're going to beat Leicester," said the outside-half Sam Vesty, who should know, given the quality of the rugby education he received at Welford Road before heading south-west at the end of last season. "If you end up in an arm wrestle at every breakdown and there's no freedom, it suits them." Which is exactly the conclusion Scarlets reached, and a fat lot of good it did them.
Exeter v London Irish
This should be fascinating. London Irish finished the last round of matches with a two-point lead at the top of the table and all things being equal, there should still be some clear blue water between them and the rest at the end of this one. But Exeter have been de-equalising things all season, not just at Sandy Park but on difficult trips to such unforgiving venues as Welford Road and Franklin's Gardens. They may not win today – the Exiles pack an awful lot of punch outside the scrum, especially with Delon Armitage back in business – but if Gareth Steenson kicks his goals once again (when doesn't he kick them?) they could take something from the contest.
Irish still have fitness issues in the back row, so the Tongan forward Chris Hala'ufia, a No 8 by breeding, has been press-ganged into another stint on the open-side flank. Exeter go in with the starting line-up that did for Bourgoin in France last weekend, Andrew Higgins continuing on the right wing and Rich Baxter, brother of head coach Rob, at No 8.
Wasps v Northampton
Tomorrow's heavyweight bout at Adams Park is all about contrast. Can the high-tempo Londoners lay hands on enough ball to move the Midlanders' uber-pack around the field and have them blowing through their rear ends by the end of the first half? Northampton are vulnerable to the counter-attack: Saracens proved as much last season, and Edinburgh reinforced the point a week ago. There again, they will travel with a match-winning front row and a natural goal-kicker in Stephen Myler. It may not be pretty, but it will certainly be watchable.