Weekend preview: Billy Vunipola power faces Harlequins test in derby battle


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The Independent Online

Harlequins v Saracens

London rugby is hardly the equivalent of football in Rome, Milan or Madrid: the divide has little to do with class politics, although the  cravat-and-corduroy set are far more likely to be spotted at Quins than at Saracens. Yet the sense of rivalry  between these two is acute. Today’s match at the Stoop between Sarries, the 2011 champions, and the team who relieved them of their title, has all the makings of a spikey, no-love-lost affair.

The visitors are still restricting James Johnston, their big summer capture from Quins, to bench duty, but by switching the fast-developing England prospect Billy Vunipola from blind-side flank to No 8, they have gone for maximum power in the back five of the scrum. Saracens are the only unbeaten side in the competition and they have it in them to win again this afternoon, but a fourth consecutive attacking bonus point may prove beyond them.

Bath v London Irish

A week ago, the West Countrymen played silly buggers in selection and duly wrecked one of the showpiece contests of the first half of the season. They are taking things a whole lot more seriously this weekend: Jonathan Joseph, George Ford, Peter Stringer, Paul James and Matt Garvey are all back in the starting line-up, as is the form lock in the country, Dave Attwood, who leads the side.

The Exiles are suffering from a high level of injury strife and will travel light, although they would have looked significantly stronger had Joseph, Garvey and the eye-catching full-back Anthony Watson still been among their number, rather than in the Bath line-up. All three shot off to the Rec at the end of last season, as did the highly-rated young flanker David Sisi. Brian Smith, the Irish coach, would therefore happily offer up a limb in exchange for victory over his No 1 bogeymen, but it is difficult to envisage anything other than a home win. 

Exeter v Leicester

Leicester, second in the table ahead of last night’s game at Northampton, have had their issues in the depths of Devon, so they were always likely to wheel out the heavy artillery for tomorrow’s contest. Three Lions  forwards – the hooker Tom Youngs, the prop Dan Cole and the lock Geoff Parling – are back in the pack, as is the Australian turnover specialist Julian Salvi, who is just about the most effective loose forward in the country week on week.

Exeter have Dave Ewers at No 8, having won at London Irish without him last time out. Ben White, the back-rower who scored the late try that did for the Exiles, drops to the bench, thereby forcing the former Worcester forward Kai Horstmann to drop out altogether.

Wasps v Worcester

Worcester have not won a game this season. There again, neither have Wasps. Indeed, David Young’s side have not chiselled out a Premiership victory since beating Gloucester in mid-February.

That is a long barren spell by anyone’s standards, but Young believes his latest batch of fast-tracked youngsters – the wing Josh Bassett, the prop Jake Cooper-Woolley, the  21-year-old Fijian No 8 Nathan Hughes – are man enough to do the needful soon enough.

Hughes will start for the first time today, thanks to Ed Jackson’s withdrawal through illness, while the gifted Elliot Daly makes his first appearance of the season at full-back. The Midlanders, meanwhile, have George Porter at prop for the first time in nine months and have  recalled the Scotland front-rower Euan Murray and the Tongan No 8 Semisi Taulava.

Newcastle v Gloucester

Billy Twelvetrees, the England centre, signed a two-year contract extension with Gloucester yesterday and takes his place in a back division of all the talents. Ben Morgan, the international No 8, is also on the team sheet. The Tynesiders have won four of their last six games against these opponents, however, and if they are to avoid an immediate return to the second tier, they must win any home game that offers them hope.