Harlequins v Wasps
It has been a brutal week for Wasps: fast running out of money and under serious threat of administration, they failed to close the deal with a new investor; riddled with injury, they lost their captain John Hart to premature retirement at the age of 30; struggling for results, their brave assault on Biarritz in the Challenge Cup quarter-final came to nothing. "I'd be lying if I said that what has happened isn't in the backs of people's minds," admitted David Young, their director of rugby.
The former European champions can at least take a significant step towards staving off relegation by beating the Premiership leaders today, and to that end they will field one of the quickest back-three units – Richard Haughton, Christian Wade and Tom Varndell – ever seen in the English game. But Quins, their sights set firmly on a home play-off tie, have assembled a line-up far stronger than the one heavily beaten in Toulon eight days ago. Assuming Rory Clegg kicks his goals for the home side (not an absolute given), Wasps' week can only get worse.
Gloucester v Newcastle
And yet...Newcastle are eight points adrift at the bottom of the table. Should they leave Kingsholm without so much as a losing bonus point – and they have every chance of doing so, given the attacking potential running through the Gloucester side – Wasps will take the field for the late kick-off at the Stoop knowing that a draw should be enough to secure their Premiership status (for as long as the accountants allow it).
The Tynesiders have not won a league game away from Kingston Park all season: indeed, they have nothing to show for their travels except a lousy consolation point at Bath in February. By way of preparation for this important game, they travelled to the Algarve for some warm-weather training. If the likes of Freddie Burns, Charlie Sharples, Jonny May and Luke Narraway work up a head of steam on behalf of the home side, Newcastle will feel a different kind of heat.
Northampton v Leicester
This should be a rare old rumble. Northampton, denied the services of forwards as good as Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark because of suspension and still without the injured Tom Wood, can feel the warm breath of Exeter on their necks in the race for a top-four finish. Defeat is not really an option, especially as they must travel to Devon next weekend, so they must throw the kitchen sink at their great local rivals and hope for the best.
Leicester are in decent shape: the England prop Dan Cole has returned from the Six Nations in the form of his life; the Australian flanker Julian Salvi continues to underline his status as one of the season's best signings; and the international scrum-half Ben Youngs is back in the starting line-up after a short ban. How the Saints must wish Hartley and Clark had steered clear of trouble.
Worcester v Exeter
Those poor misguided fools who like their rugby fast and loose with a nice dollop of cream on top should steer clear of Sixways. Neither of today's combatants are likely to be mistaken for the Barbarians: they are tough, physical and methodical, with a deep love of the set-piece and a profound suspicion of adventurous abandon. But for all that, they are successfully establishing themselves as genuine Premiership concerns – slowly in Worcester's case, quickly in Exeter's.
If the Devonians can do a job this afternoon, they will qualify for next season's Heineken Cup. What is more, they will keep alive their hopes of a Premiership play-off place. Worcester tend to be hard work on home territory, but Exeter's back rowers are something to behold at the moment and could prove decisive.
London Irish v Saracens
Alex Corbisiero, a big hit for England in the Six Nations, leads the Exiles from the front row today – the youngest man, at 24, to captain London Irish in the professional era. The Reading-based club have seen their season disappear into the ether, but with Saracens licking their wounds from last weekend's humbling in Europe, and missing the injured Owen Farrell into the bargain, there is potential for an upset.