Sarries braced for rough stuff from Leicester

Title-chasing Saracens make changes as Tigers find the boot is on the other foot
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The Independent Online

Saracens v Leicester

The last time Saracens spent more than the odd week looking down on Leicester in the Premiership table, Martin Johnson was in the first flush of his captaincy career, Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella were transforming the nature of club rugby and Nigel Wray, the Watford-based club's unfeasibly generous chairman, was still throwing his second million at the sport, as opposed to his 17th. How things have changed, suddenly. This term, Sarries have grown accustomed to lording it over everyone, the Tigers included.

It took them four months and 11 rounds of league activity to lose a game – at London Irish six days ago – and the way Brendan Venter tells it, that experience will make them stronger rather than weaker. Not that the director of rugby at Vicarage Road is allowing the beaten side to make amends en bloc: the Italian scrummaging specialist Carlos Nieto has been promoted to the front row, with former Leicester lock Tom Ryder reappearing in the second row and the increasingly impressive Andy Saull returning to the open-side flank.

Leicester have made a habit of losing their rags on away-days in Watford: Johnson himself experienced moments when the "goodwill to all men" approach seemed a less satisfying option than giving all men a good thumping. If the Midlanders remain an aggressive bunch, an intriguing aspect of today's set-to will be how their talented youngsters – the scrum-half Ben Youngs and the prop Dan Cole in particular – cope when the fur starts flying.

Northampton v London Irish

Talking of airborne animal coats, the second-versus-third meeting at a sold-out Franklin's Gardens will not be the place for conscientious objectors. True, the Irish flanker Neil Best is not starting for the home side, which will make things a tad calmer than they might have been, but the high energy level common to these clubs means an outbreak of pugilistic fission is all but guaranteed.

Northampton have taken 20 points from six matches since late October – their last defeat was at Leicester, where everyone loses – and they are not lacking for size: the 6ft 7ins Courtney Lawes, who played in the second row for England during the autumn, can be seen on the blind-side flank today. For their part, the Exiles have the current red-rose scrum-half Paul Hodgson back fit, which amounts to a significant plus.

Leeds v Bath

Down at the dark end of the table, there is a macabre fascination about the contest between Premiership newcomers just beginning to find their way and Premiership old-timers in serious danger of losing theirs. The Yorkshire club's unexpected victory at Newcastle confirmed them as something better than no-hopers, although it is asking a lot of the teenage outside-half Joe Ford to prosper at this level, even against a midfield as out-of-kilter as Bath's. The West County pack, on the other hand, is among the strongest in the tournament. Should they go under at Headingley, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Gloucester v Worcester

Gloucester, those curate's eggs incarnate, have recalled three Pacific Islanders – Lesley Vainikolo, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and Akapusi Qera – for what amounts to a derby fixture at Kingsholm. Worcester, a side on the slide, have the strong defensive organiser Dale Rasmussen in a starting role today, along with the former Gloucester hooker Chris Fortey.

Wasps v Newcastle

Tomorrow's game at Adams Park is, on the face of it, a middling affair of no immediate concern. But a heavy Wasps victory, allied to results going right elsewhere, could propel them deep into the top four with a game in hand – a position the former champions have come to know quite well.