Weekend Preview: Hodgson back to help weakened champions
Saracens v Northampton
If Saracens ever wanted to know what it's like to be Leicester, the England coaches are doing their best to enlighten them. The Midlanders have spent much of the professional era being stripped bare by international calls, while the reigning champions have had it rather easier. No longer. By losing half a dozen important players to the Six Nations, Saracens are at increased risk of losing matches.
Leicester won at Vicarage Road just recently, while Worcester prevailed at Sixways in the last round. Tomorrow's game is significant, then: Northampton, enjoying a decent run of form and bolstered by the presence of Phil Dowson in the back row and Tom Wood on the bench, could conceivably relieve their hosts of second place and put themselves in pole position for a home semi-final in May.
Charlie Hodgson, who missed last weekend's England v Wales game with a finger injury and may continue to pay a price, is back in the Sarries starting line-up, as is the influential captain, Steve Borthwick, after injury.
Leicester v Gloucester
Ever so quietly, the Tigers have returned to the top four after the trials and tribulations of the first half of the campaign. One defeat in 10 league games says everything that needs saying about Richard Cockerill's team and for all their brilliance in the wide open spaces, Gloucester will do very well to take something from tomorrow's visit to Welford Road.
The West Country club's best centres, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and Henry Trinder, are injured; James Simpson-Daniel and Rory Lawson have been replaced by Tom Voyce and Dave Lewis at wing and scrum-half respectively; the back-row unit of Tom Savage, Matt Cox and Brett Deacon is nothing if not unfamiliar. Contrastingly, the hosts have England players available to them in the shape of the half-backs Toby Flood and Ben Youngs. Only one winner, it seems.
London Irish v Wasps
Wasps have been busy on the contractual front, re-signing some sound players ahead of next season, when the likes of James Haskell will return to the payroll and set about reversing the former champions' sharp decline. But there is much work to be done if Haskell and Tom Palmer are not to find themselves playing second-tier rugby, for there is not much daylight between the High Wycombe-based side and bottom spot.
London Irish look stronger in most areas ahead of today's game and field a back division full of attacking potential. There will also be considerable interest in the performance of the rumbustious Canadian international Jebb Sinclair at No 8.
Bath v Worcester
Led in recent weeks by the outstanding Springbok back-rower Francois Louw, quite possibly the signing of the season, the Recreation Grounders gave themselves a significant lift by winning at Exeter last week. But if they mess up today against a side coached with characteristic resourcefulness by one of their own – Richard Hill is an automatic pick in anyone's all-time Bath side – they could be back in 10th spot, wondering where their season went. The home side have changed both props, promoting Charlie Beech and Duncan Bell.
Exeter v Sale
Richie Vernon, impressive off the bench for Scotland six days ago, starts in the Sale pack because of a reshuffle caused by injury to the Russian lock Andrei Ostrikov. The northerners have been involved in some unusually high-scoring affairs, losing 48-41 at Harlequins early in the campaign and beating Wasps 46-34 last time out. But no one scores heavily at Sandy Park – only free-running Gloucester have passed 20 this season – so chances of a try-fest are zero.
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