Weekend preview: Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown rested for Wembley showdown
Saracens v Harlequins (Saturday, 3.15pm)
Steve Hansen, head coach of the All Blacks and therefore a man who knows a thing or two about rugby, believes Mike Brown – who was voted the player of the Six Nations – may be the best full-back in the world right now. Which makes it just a little unfortunate that 80,000-plus spectators will be denied a sighting of the in-form Harlequin at Wembley today. Together with Chris Robshaw, the national captain, and the scrum-half Danny Care, another individual operating at the very top of his game, Brown has been given a weekend’s rest following his exertions in the Six Nations, which earned him the Player of the Championship gong.
Saracens are missing a very decent player of their own in the utility back Chris Wyles, who is with the United States team for the first leg of a World Cup play-off tie with Uruguay in Montevideo. They are, however, bolstered by the return from Test duty of Owen Farrell at outside-half and Mako Vunipola at loose-head prop, and look formidably strong.
Sale v Northampton (Saturday, 2pm)
Northampton, the table-topping title favourites, have also lost an important player to the US team in the shape of heavy hitting back-rower Samo Manoa, but with the likes of George North, Luther Burrell, Lee Dickson, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood back, they should just about survive his absence. The fact they are still smarting from last week’s LV= Cup final defeat by Exeter will not make Sale’s task easier.
With European peace about to be declared, the race for places in next season’s elite cross-border competition will grow more breathless by the week. If Sale can take something from this fixture against expectations, a top-six finish will not be beyond them.
Leicester v Exeter (Sunday, 2pm)
Manu Tuilagi starts this game at Welford Road as Leicester go in search of the comprehensive victory that would accelerate their defence of the Premiership title. This tends to be their time of year and while their forwards have not shown anything like their usual dominance this season, the back division looks hot enough – especially with the Fijian powerhouse Vereniki Goneva on a roll. Once again, the young Welsh stand-off Owen Williams gets the nod over Toby Flood.
Gloucester v Newcastle (Saturday, 3pm)
Billy Twelvetrees, the influential England and Gloucester centre, misses this fixture at Kingsholm with an infected knee. Two other current red-rose internationals – the wing Jonny May and No 8 Ben Morgan – will begin the afternoon on the bench. Freddie Burns continues to kick his heels among the replacements, with Ryan Mills at No 10.
London Irish v Bath (Saturday, 5.30pm)
The Exiles expect a crowd of well over 20,000 this afternoon in Reading and are throwing the kitchen sink at it as a result, with James O’Connor, Topsy Ojo, Marland Yarde and Shane Geraghty included in an ultra-attacking back division. Bath restore England’s David Wilson to their front row.
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