Saints in the ruder health as local rivals vie for final spot

Weekend Preview



Leicester v Northampton


If Northampton could be granted one wish, they would like to be Leicester.

They envy their neighbours' stadium, their audience, their trophy cabinet, their influential position at the very heart of English club rugby. If Leicester could have an immediate craving fulfilled, it would be to reclaim top-dog status in Europe from ... you guessed it, Northampton. With so little separating the two East Midlands clubs in terms of style and desire, they could impersonate each other for an entire season and not be found out.

We will find out things about both sides today, though. Under normal circumstances, home advantage would almost guarantee the Tigers a seventh successive Premiership final appearance, but the champions' scratchy form does not sit happily alongside the surge of big-game authority that has earned the Saints a place in next weekend's Heineken Cup showpiece in Cardiff. Leicester have the stronger squad, but in the 15 v 15 context, it is possible to argue that their nearest and dearest are in better shape.

Northampton, always reluctant to tinker with selection, have made just the one change to their regular line-up, Bruce Reihana replacing Paul Diggin on the left wing. Leicester go in with Steve Mafi at lock and Jordan Crane at No 8. Once again, the England tight-head prop Dan Cole must play second fiddle to Martin Castrogiovanni.

Saracens v Gloucester

Steve Borthwick, the deposed England captain, is not renowned for laughing in public, but his sides will surely split asunder if Saracens go one better than last year and lay hands on the Premiership trophy. Players up and down the country who admire his work ethic and swear by his powers of analysis see no reason to change their view just because the national selectors have decided to dump on him, and that includes a one or two senior Gloucester types who understand what he brings to the mix.

To stand a chance of winning tomorrow, the West Countrymen will have to out-think Borthwick at the line-out and make the most of every sliver of front-foot possession on offer. If they can stay with Saracens in the close-quarters contest – the home side's scrummage has improved out of all recognition, thanks to the addition of Matt Stevens – they are sufficiently imaginative with ball in hand to ask serious questions of the tournament's meanest defence.

Bath-bound Dave Attwood must make do with a seat on the Gloucester bench – Jim Hamilton and Alex Brown, second-row peas from very different pods, will start the game – while the unusually substantial Tim Molenaar has beaten the promising Henry Trinder to the outside centre berth. Saracens are pretty much at full strength, leaving aside a couple of Pacific islanders on the long-term injury list. The likes of Alex Goode, David Strettle and Richard Wigglesworth would love to catch the eye ahead of the World Cup training squad selection, as would Stevens.

Munster v Ospreys

There is another tournament in town – or rather, in these islands. Tonight's Magners League semi-final between Munster and Ospreys at Thomond Park gives the underperforming Welsh region a chance to prolong a campaign that has been on life support for months, and if they prevail, which would be just like them, there will be a good deal of self-justificatory mirth down Swansea way.

"We will have to lift our game from where it's been in recent weeks," said Scott Johnson, their director of coaching, making a late bid for the "understatement of the season" gong. "However, our preparation hasn't been about knee-jerk reactions. We've made sure the guys know what they have to do and have the confidence to really enjoy the challenge."

Once again, Johnson has ignored the Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips, whose attempts to leave the club have come home to roost. He is not even on the bench, which contains a pair of All Black flankers in Jerry Collins and Marty Holah.

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