Sale v London Irish
There are "big games" at Twickenham, which can draw upwards of 75,000 spectators, and there are "big games" in the less fertile surroundings of Bolton, where business at the turnstile is barely a quarter as brisk.
Sale's bold attempt to lay on a major Premiership event at the Reebok Stadium this evening has proved fraught with difficulty: partly because of their own poor form, partly because the rival attractions of football and rugby league have conspired against them. If this project is not to fall on very stony ground indeed, the northerners need a victory.
Quite whether an inexperienced starting line-up shorn of the likes of the suspended captain Mark Cueto, the World Cup-winning wing Ben Cohen, the high-class centre Mathew Tait, the Lions scrum-half Dwayne Peel and the England prop Andrew Sheridan can find a way of staying with a London Irish team whose play-off ambitions are still just about alive is a moot point. Defeat for the Exiles might even threaten their Heineken Cup qualification for next season, so they will not be messing around.
They have recalled the recently-capped England prop Alex Corbisiero to the front row for the first time since the Six Nations, and restored the gnarled enforcer Bob Casey to the engine room. Sale, with a debutant on the wing in Will Addison, will do well to hold them.
Bath v Harlequins
London Irish are not the only ones thinking about the Heineken Cup cut. If the cookie crumbles in the way most people expect over the remaining four weekends, today's contestants at the Recreation Ground will probably find themselves chasing the sixth and last qualification place. Failure here will make life extremely difficult.
Of the two, the Londoners are in the better shape. Some of their recent rugby has been terrific – when they play at their preferred tempo, marked "allegro", the likes of Mike Brown, George Lowe and Danny Care look a million dollars – and if there is still something ho-hum about them up front, their ability to absorb pain and pressure is wholly to their credit. By comparison, Bath are unconvincing, especially now there is no Olly Barkley to pull a few strings in midfield.
Leicester v Gloucester
Gloucester, the form side in the competition not so long ago, have been a little flakey over the past month, and flakiness is hardly a virtue when it comes to playing at Welford Road. They have picked a former Leicester hard-head in Brett Deacon at No 8, and asked him to lead the side – a tough gig for him, to say the least. The Tigers are bound to be cranky after departing the Heineken Cup at the quarter-final stage, and have freshened things up by recalling prop Martin Castrogiovanni and second-row forward George Skivington to their tight five.
Wasps v Leeds
Wasps, more shop-soiled than at any point in their recent history, will field kids by the class-load at Adams Park tomorrow: Jack Wallace and Elliot Daly at wing and centre respectively, with Joe Launchbury and Sam Jones in the pack. None of them was in the Premiership squad at the start of the season, for the very good reason that none of them was out of his teens. Leeds, raging rather effectively against the dying of the light, are unchanged after their victory at Newcastle last weekend.
Exeter v Saracens
The Devonians have given all they have to give, and cannot be expected to resist a Saracens side serious about landing a first Premiership title, even though they travel without their hugely effective captain and lock Steve Borthwick, who has a minor shoulder injury.Reuse content