Tempers sure to flare as top two battle for bragging rights
Leicester v Saracens
Barely a Leicester-Saracens game goes by without a rumpus, and while most of the recent amusement has been generated by one man in particular, the fact that Brendan Venter does most of his Premiership work from a safe distance these days – not even the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary class consider South Africa to be too close for comfort – hardly guarantees 80 minutes of sweetness and light when these two meet on top-of-the-table business.
Venter flew back to the republic on Thursday night, having given Sarries some hands-on time in his new role of technical specialist earlier in the week. It will be down to his replacement as director of rugby, Mark McCall, and the ever-resourceful captain Steve Borthwick to figure a way of repeating last season's victory at Welford Road today and threatening the Tigers' leadership of the table.
Leicester have the lock George Skivington back from England training, and his return allows Tom Croft to revert to his favoured role on the blind-side flank. Saracens find space for Kelly Brown – the Scottish back-rower missed last weekend's win at Wasps because of Six Nations commitments – and if Hugh Vyvyan gets a run off the bench, he will set a new record of 233 Premiership appearances.
Gloucester v Bath
Both sides see this as a must-win game: partly because the scrap for play-off places is now extremely intense and partly because they have excellent unbeaten runs to protect. The Kingsholmites have not lost a Premiership fixture since messing up at Leeds over the new year weekend – a stretch that includes victories at Northampton and Wasps – while their nearest and dearest have won five straight. Indeed, Bath have not been beaten in the league since late November.
Paul Doran-Jones, who spent most of the week not training with his club because his country suddenly decided it needed him, will start in the Gloucester front row today, while Matt Banahan, equally absent but for more obvious reasons, being a regular in the Test squad these days, has been included in the Bath back division. Third place in the table is at stake.
Leeds v London Irish
Leeds, on the other hand, are 12th and last, and judging by their performances over the last couple of weeks, they are lucky to be that high in the rankings. As expected, their two Test forwards – the hooker Steve Thompson and the flanker Hendre Fourie – return to the pack for the second of four winnable games. Having lost the first of these to Newcastle six days ago, there can be no foul-ups tomorrow.
The Exiles may have won two of their last three Premiership contests, but the memory of that long losing streak either side of Christmas has not been entirely erased and they still look vulnerable. On paper, they have a big advantage over the Yorkshiremen, especially with youngsters like Tom Homer, Jonathan Joseph and James Gibson looking increasingly comfortable in Premiership surroundings, but desperation does funny things to teams. As Leeds are now as desperate emotionally as they are form-wise, the visitors must take care.
Exeter v Northampton
What the hell happened to Northampton? Actually, we know what happened to them. They lost five players to the Six Nations, another three or four to injury and, understandably enough, failed to cope. Although one of the orthopaedic cases, the brilliant young England lock Courtney Lawes, will be back between the shafts tomorrow, the rest are still missing and collective confidence is low.
That being said, they possess enough heavy artillery up front to ask significant questions of Exeter, who depend so much on their close-quarter game, backed up by Gareth Steenson's kicking. Victory for the Devonians, who have a hotshot of their own in the flanker Tom Johnson, will leave them with a perfectly balanced win-loss ratio more than two-thirds of the way through their first season. Astonishing.
Wasps v Sale
Wasps have just signed Chris Bell from Sale, so it will be interesting to see how the centre goes tomorrow, given that he will be playing for the club he is about to leave against the club he is about to join. Nothing much is happening for either side, apart from the odd sacking. A classic is not anticipated.
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