Rugby weekend preview: Nowhere to hide as Northampton and Leicester collide with tour berths at stake
Northampton (4th) v Leicester (2nd)
Ben Youngs calls it "Groundhog Day", and while there was little joy for the specialist groundhogs in the England back row when they went in search of a Grand Slam at the Millennium Stadium a fortnight ago – Steve Walsh, the controversial Antipodean referee, made sure of that – you can see his point. Leicester are the hardy annuals of domestic rugby and when spring comes around, they are always to be found in the thick of the meaningful action.
"It happens every year," said the red-rose half-back ahead of today's East Midlands derby with Northampton at Franklin's Gardens – the kind of fixture better suited to thorns and nettles than to shrinking violets. "We have big game after big game and we have to keep on winning. Every match is like a cup final from here on in."
Youngs can expect a severe test from the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson: very much the forgotten man of England's No 9 fraternity, he has been awaiting this chance to remind the national coach, Stuart Lancaster, of his existence. But it is another member of the Youngs family, the hooker Tom, who faces the sternest examination. His confrontation with Dylan Hartley could go a long way towards deciding which man makes the Lions cut for this summer's tour of Australia – especially as two of the squad's coaching staff, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, will be among the sell-out audience.
Wasps (6th) v Saracens (1st)
Saracens, fiendishly difficult to beat, are within whispering distance of a home Premiership semi-final. Having established a clear lead at the top of the log and with two of their last three games at home, Steve Borthwick's deeply resilient team can afford to rest players as important as the England threequarters David Strettle and Brad Barritt while operating a rotation policy in virtually every other area of the side.
They also welcome back the magnificent Namibian back-rower Jacques Burger, perhaps the nearest thing ever seen to a one-man team at international level, after a serious knee injury that incapacitated him for more than a year. Burger starts on the bench.
London Irish (10th) v Sale (11th)
The Exiles, very much a top-of-the-ground outfit, have finally found some form and are equipped to play at an unusually high tempo on Sunday. Only a few weeks ago, they were embroiled in a three-way relegation scrap with Sale and London Welsh, but with recent events going their way both on and off the field they are one good performance away from being able to sleep easy in their beds.
Sale are not out of the mire by any means, so they need to turn up in Reading. The midfield darkness-and-light contest between the hard-hitting visiting duo of Johnny Leota and Sam Tuitupou and the silky-smooth home pairing of Guy Armitage and Shane Geraghty will be well worth watching.
Bath (7th) v L'don Welsh (12th)
Having lost their appeal against a five-point cut for playing the scrum-half Tyson Keats on false papers, the visitors are really up against it. The return of Franck Montanella and Paulica Ion to the front row suggests they will lay solid foundations at the Recreation Ground, but Bath can push their claims for a Heineken Cup qualification spot with a five-point victory and are not losing many at home these days.
Worcester (9th) v Exeter (8th)
Exeter have a decent run-in that gives them a shot at Heineken Cup qualification, but defeat against underachieving opponents who have faded to grey yet again will make life difficult. James Scaysbrook, such an important figure for the Chiefs, returns to the back row in place of Ben White.
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