Northampton v Gloucester Today, 3.15pm
There is more than one way to pass judgement on a professional career: not everyone gets to play international rugby, let alone be defined by it. Phil Dowson bagged himself an England cap or two – he was one of Stuart Lancaster’s original go-to men back in 2012 – but it has been his work at elite league level, first with Newcastle and then with Northampton, that has commanded the respect of union followers.
This afternoon, the flanker will make his 200th appearance in the Premiership and stand alongside the likes of Danny Grewcock, Steve Borthwick and George Chuter as one of the domestic game’s great indefatigables. What is more, he will lead the title favourites against the one side to have beaten them this term.
While the Saints have no reason to fear a Cherry and White pack that has struggled all season – they feel able to relegate the loose-head prop Alex Waller and the American back-rower Samu Manoa to the bench – they may find themselves on the uncomfortable end of a backlash from Freddie Burns, restored to the Gloucester midfield and desperate to prove a point or three. The outside-half has some decent men around him, including the impressive Dan Robson at No 9 and the ambitious Henry Trinder at outside centre, and will fancy a tear-up given the right kind of ball.
Exeter v London Irish Today, 3pm
This could be the most entertaining fixture of the weekend. Exeter, flatly refusing to budge from their ball-in-hand policy, have Henry Slade in the No 10 shirt, and the youngster’s performance will be of interest to the England coaches as they spend a weekend with half an eye on the medium term as opposed to the immediate, Six Nations-dominated short term. Meanwhile, the visitors have packed the back division with running talent: Topsy Ojo at full-back, Marland Yarde on the left wing, Shane Geraghty at outside-half and the Wallaby wonder James O’Connor in an unfamiliar role at inside centre.
The league campaign has been slipping away from the Devonians and never really started for the Exiles. But there are enough players on show with good reason to shine – Yarde for one, the Exeter back-rower Tom Johnson for another – to ensure a decent contest.
Newcastle v Leicester Tomorrow, 2pm
The return of Manu Tuilagi to the Leicester side – the England midfielder goes straight into the starting line-up – and the Tiger-lair backgrounds of Newcastle strategists Dean Richards and John Wells mean tomorrow’s contest on Tyneside is far more interesting than the league standings might suggest. The home side hand cross-code signing Lee Smith a senior debut, two weeks after his move from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Harlequins v Worcester Today, 3pm
Ryan Lamb, the much-travelled midfield playmaker from Gloucester, makes his full debut for Worcester this afternoon, and while he will have to spend the rest of the campaign playing like Barry John and Phil Bennett combined if the bottom club are to stave off relegation, a vintage performance would at least make them feel better about themselves. Quins, who did themselves no favours in losing at Kingsholm last time out, have promoted England Under-20 centre Harry Sloan to the ranks of the grown-ups.
Wasps v Sale Today, 3pm
Sale, this season’s surprise package, will consolidate their top six position if they beat their closest challengers at Adams Park. Some of their most effective players – Vadim Cobilas, Sam Tuitupou and Danny Cipriani – start this one on the bench: something of a risk, given that the Londoners are in a position to recall the scrum-half Joe Simpson and the excellent back-rower Sam Jones.