Weekend preview: Freddie Burns benched while Ford drives Bath on
Leicester v Gloucester Sunday, 2pm
Everyone assumes Freddie Burns will be playing his club rugby at Leicester next season, which is exactly where he will be watching club rugby on Sunday afternoon. Gloucester have demoted the England outside-half to the bench for a game they cannot expect to win, and while Burns will be frustrated at the decision to run Ryan Mills ahead of him, he will at least be spared a full 80 minutes’ worth of trial by the Tigers pack.
Mike Tindall returns to midfield and will lead a Cherry and White outfit bolstered by the international back-rowers Ben Morgan and Matt Kvesic, while the home side have thrown England’s second-choice hooker, Tom Youngs, straight into their starting front row. Leicester have not lost to these opponents at Welford Road since 2007, so even if Youngs continues to test the limits of the compass with his line-out deliveries, another home victory seems assured.
Exeter v Bath Saturday, 3.15pm
While Burns slums it among the replacements, George Ford has a full afternoon’s work ahead of him at Sandy Park. Bath, finally generating some momentum after years of stop-start stuttering, are well equipped to continue their domination over the Devonians, who have not beaten their fellow West Countrymen in almost 40 years and seem unusually vulnerable every time they share a pitch with them.
Bath have the England lock Dave Attwood and the Wales front-rower Paul James back from Six Nations duty. Perhaps more significantly, the red-rose prop David Wilson returns to the tight-head side of the scrum – a development that will be carefully tracked by the national coaching team ahead of next weekend’s contest with Ireland at Twickenham.
Leicester have thrown Tom Youngs straight into their starting front row against Gloucester (Getty Images) Wasps v London Irish Saturday, 3pm
Hugh Southwell, the Wasps full-back who won 59 caps for Scotland, reluctantly called time on his rugby career yesterday after failing to recover from a hamstring injury, so there will be no shortage of emotional drive when David Young’s players take the field at Adams Park on Saturday afternoon. Deeply unfortunate to come up short at Harlequins six days ago, they are unchanged for this one, but they may need more than strong feelings of solidarity with Southwell to see off the visitors. If the Exiles’ startling victory at Saracens last weekend has a galvanising effect, the likes of James O’Connor and Shane Geraghty could prove very difficult to handle.
Northampton v Worcester Saturday, 3pm
Question: How does a team without a Premiership win all season go about breaking their duck at a venue as forbidding as Franklin’s Gardens? Answer: er, um… pass. According to Dean Ryan, the Worcester rugby director, the bottom feeders remain “desperate to fight off relegation”. This is not as fanciful as it seems, for Newcastle are only 10 points clear in 11th place and are not exactly threatening to explode into form themselves. However, there is a time and a place to start winning – and today is not the ideal opportunity.
The Saints, top of the log after round 13, will be without the centre Dominic Waldouck and the influential lock Christian Day as well as their England starting personnel, but with Lee Dickson back at scrum-half, their tempo should be too much for the visitors.
Harlequins v Newcastle Saturday, 3pm
Quins are very much in the hunt for a semi-final spot and with the youthfully exuberant Luke Wallace joining Maurie Fa’asavalu and Nick Easter, a couple of old hard-heads, in a revamped back row, they will start as hot favourites against the Tynesiders, who have two Scottish internationals, the scrum-half Mike Blair and the hooker Scott Lawson, back between the shafts.
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