Leicester v Northampton
Richard Cockerill has just signed on for another five years as Leicester’s rugby director – a smart piece of business on the champions’ part, given the former hooker’s profound understanding of how things work at Welford Road – but it might take him a whole lot longer to see the funny side of any reverse this afternoon.
A Northampton victory would be early evidence of a shift in the balance of East Midlands power after years – nay, decades – of Tiger-striped domination and they fancy their chances. The visitors have two of their “marquee” signings, the influential Lions Test players George North and Alex Corbisiero, on show. A third, the Samoan half-back Kahn Fotuali’i, is on the bench, which amounts to a strong vote of confidence in Lee Dickson, who played with such energy against Sale last time out.
This is the first game of the campaign involving two of the Premiership’s big three, so Leicester are keen to assert some authority in front of a sell-out crowd. It may not be entirely straightforward for them: injuries to Mathew Tait, Manu Tuilagi and Steve Mafi, along with the continuing unavailability of the Argentine prop Marcos Ayerza, are far from insignificant. Under the circumstances, it is slightly surprising that the Lions lock Geoff Parling, who shredded Exeter at the line-out six days ago, must make do with a bench spot.
Worcester v Newcastle
These two are to be found at the other end of the table: indeed, they might be said to inhabit a different rugby planet altogether. It seems a little previous to wonder which of them will be relegated, for there are other trapdoor candidates currently slumming it in the lower reaches –and besides, the respective bosses at Sixways this afternoon, Dean Ryan and Dean Richards, know how to maximise results during international windows, when better-equipped sides lose their top-of-the-bill acts to the Test stage. Even so, it is far from absurd to suggest that today’s losers will take it very hard. Worcester have yet to taste victory and Ryan openly confesses that he is in the initial stages of a work in progress.
Euan Murray’s presence at tight-head prop should guarantee a prosperous afternoon at the scrum and there are a couple of attacking runners – the well regarded full-back Chris Pennell and the wing David Lemi – who can make something happen with ball in hand.
These exercises in rampant paranoia often come down to kicking, however:Ignacio Mieres or Rory Clegg? You pays your money…
Saracens v Wasps
Wasps, packed to the gunnels with bright young things, travel more in hope than expectation, although it will be interesting to see how a reshaped back-row unit of Ed Jackson, Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes prosper against a Saracens trio featuring the impressive Will Fraser, back between the shafts after long-term injury. Sarries feel able to rest the likes of Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick, Kelly Brown and Owen Farrell. Alex Goode, the England full-back, will start the game at fly-half.
London Irish v Harlequins
Quins are also in tinkering mood on the selection front: their back division looks very different to the one ultimately starved of ball by Saracens a week ago.
This is an important game for the Exiles who, for all their frailties, know how to put on a show at the Madejski Stadium. George Skivington is back at lock and will lead the side. Shane Geraghty – remember him? – starts at No 10.
Gloucester v Exeter
A West Country rumble with a difference. Back in the day, these two loved nothing better than marmalising each other up front in time-honoured “never mind the ball, get on with the game” fashion. Now, they both seem happier throwing the ball around and fiddling about with double miss-moves in midfield. What on earth is the world coming to?
Gloucester, struggling with front-row suspensions, are hoping the new lock James Hudson will beef things up at close quarters, but they have lost the in-form centre Henry Trinder to injury for tomorrow’s game. Exeter have made four changes after finishing a distant second to Leicester last weekend. Chris Whitehead’s promotion at hooker makes sense, but they may regret relegating the hard-working Jim Scaysbrook to the bench.