Gloucester v Wasps
"There's a lot riding on this game," says Bryan Redpath, the Gloucester coach, and he's not wrong.
If the West Countrymen are to salvage something from a thoroughly rotten September – two flaccid displays on the road, one scratchy victory over Leeds at home – they must win, and win well, against a peculiarly inconsistent Wasps side this afternoon. If they go under, the rumblings from the Kingsholm Shed will be close to deafening by close of play.
Mike Tindall, the captain, has been relegated to the bench – alarming news for the England hierarchy, who consider him a first-choice centre – so Rory Lawson leads the side from scrum-half. There is a change at outside-half, too: Nicky Robinson, cast in the villain's role when Gloucester fell to Exeter in the opening round, makes way for Tim Taylor in a revamped midfield.
Dave Attwood, fast closing in on a first Test cap, returns to the engine room and has a chance to put one over on Simon Shaw, his rival for the front-jumping slot against the All Blacks in November. For their part, the Londoners will be led by Phil Vickery, once a great favourite of the Cotswold cognoscenti.
Leicester v Leeds
The Yorkshiremen have a dogged look about them, but even mongrels grow tired of finishing second every week. Sadly for them, the losing streak is unlikely to end today. Welford Road is not the most obvious place to go looking for a first victory of the campaign, and even though Exeter gave the champions an almighty hurry-up a fortnight ago, even a Leicester side as fragile as this one generally find a way to win on home territory.
The two Dans, Hipkiss and Cole, return for the Midlanders – bad news for Leeds – and there is a batch of bristling new signings on the bench. The visitors must pray that a Leicester old boy, the outstanding Marco Wentzel, works his magic in the line-out.
Harlequins v Exeter
It had to happen some time. After fielding the same starting line-up for three weeks running, Exeter have lost a player to injury. Nic Sestaret, the Frenchman, moves from right wing to centre for the incapacitated Phil Dollman, with Matt Jess filling the hole. Elsewhere, the Premiership new boys stick with what they know. Quins restore Nick Easter to his optimum position of No 8 and give the much talked-about prop Joe Marler a first start in the front row.
Bath v Sale
Bath were given a horrible going-over by Northampton last week and suddenly look vulnerable: a little elderly in the tight five, a little slow elsewhere. Sale are no world-beaters, but they found a way to win their two home games and are performing as well anyone might reasonably expect, given the unfamiliarity running through the side. Dwayne Peel is back at scrum-half, which should help no end.
Newcastle v London Irish
Bolstered by new investment – the businessman Semore Kurdi bought a 40 per cent stake in the club this week – Newcastle have all the incentive they need to produce a performance this evening. James Hudson's dodgy hamstring robs them of leadership, athleticism and energy, but the Samoan lock Filipo Levi is no mug and it may be that they will test an unchanged Exiles outfit.
Saracens v Northampton
Tomorrow's humdinger deserves a better venue than Vicarage Road. It also deserves all the best players on the field. Unfortunately, Saracens go in without the injured Alex Goode, one of their star turns last season, while the leaders must do without the England wing Chris Ashton. They say he's being "rested". The crutches tell a different tale.