Exeter, an object lesson in how to approach this Premiership rugby lark in a sustainable fashion, have worked out a way of dealing with most of their top-flight opponents over the last three years, but they are bat-blind when it comes to winning at Northampton – or beating the Saints anywhere, come to that. The West Countrymen will do well to reverse the trend this afternoon: their big-spending opponents have their two star Lions recruits, George North and Alex Corbisiero, in the starting line-up and can afford to leave another stellar signing, the Samoan half-back Kahn Fotuali’i, on the bench, where he will be sitting alongside Samu Manoa, whose form last season was on the sensational side of superb.
Intriguingly, the Northampton rugby director, Jim Mallinder, claims to be most excited by the appearance of one of his under-the-radar players: the No 8 Sam Dickinson, recruited from humble Rotherham at the start of last year and incapacitated by injury ever since. Exeter, meanwhile, have a familiar look about them. The exception is the Welsh wing Tom James, lured across the bridge from Cardiff Blues in the close season.
Andy Farrell and Mike Catt will be the England coaches in the 60,000-plus crowd to see Wasps meet Harlequins at Twickenham this afternoon, They may be the wrong men. Graham Rowntree, the national team’s scrummaging specialist, might have been interested in casting an eye over Jake Cooper-Woolley, who was captain of the Cardiff University team until a year or so ago and now finds himself a first-choice prop in the Wasps front row.
David Young, the three-tour Lion who runs the former European champions and knows a thing or three about life in the darkened recesses, believes Cooper-Woolley has international potential, so the youngster’s work-out against the aggressive Joe Marler should be fascinating. As should the performances of the two whizz-kids out wide, Christian Wade and Tom Varndell.
Quins, meanwhile, are playing a specialist open-side flanker in Luke Wallace in the No 6 shirt, with the England captain Chris Robshaw at No 7. The division of labour will be instructive: not least for Messrs Farrell and Catt, who have back-row selection issues ahead of them.
Talking of the England back-row conundrum, the new Gloucester flanker Matt Kvesic could put a few dozen herded cats among an entire flock of kittens if he hits the ground sprinting against Sale at Kingsholm today. Kvesic, the former Worcester forward, was a top-of-the-bill act for the national team in Argentina during the summer and now he has joined a club who expect to win games rather than pray to win them, he has a platform on which to construct a solid case for red-rose inclusion.
Sale shipped almost 70 points in front of the Shed two seasons ago and were beaten 29-3 on the road last term, so they will not relish the prospect of another visit to Cherry and White country. But they are expected to put in a shift: three workaholic recruits from London Welsh – the full-back Tom Arscott, the wing Phil McKenzie and the lock Jonathan Mills – all start.
London Irish, skinned by chequebook-wielding predators over the last few months, have lost the influential Tom Homer to a nasty groin injury, so they may not pose much of a goal-kicking threat. This is something of a worry, given that Saracens are unusually parsimonious when it comes to conceding tries. Not that this contest is likely to come down to fortunes from the tee: with Billy Vunipola and Jacques Burger playing on the flanks and a fistful of Test players in the back division, it could be one-way traffic in favour of the 2012 champions.
Worcester have a quintet of debutants, including the Argentine outside-half Ignacio Mieres and the experienced Welsh flanker Jonathan Thomas, but they probably suspect they could arrive with Michael Lynagh and Michael Jones and still lose. Yet twice in the last three years, they have pushed Leicester close at Welford Road, and with the champions shorn of some top-notch talent, including Mathew Tait, Toby Flood and Marcos Ayerza, the presumed slaughter may not materialise.