Weekend Preview: Quins need a swift response to Munster loss
Harlequins (3rd) v Bath (6th)
Harlequins have spent the last few days sunning themselves in Spain, but the English champions are having a rough old time of it nonetheless. Drummed out of the Heineken Cup by Munster last weekend – the repercussions included a sharp public response by club officials to the selling on of tickets by so-called “supporters” – they now find themselves looking for a first Premiership win since February. Failure against the West Countrymen will put their title defence at serious risk.
This is by no means a dead game for Bath – their play-off chances may not be great, but the three-way fight with Wasps and Exeter for the last European qualifying place is very much alive – so today’s contest has a whiff of sulphur about it. Quins start with Sam Smith and Matt Hopper in the backs and include the hooker Joe Gray and the back-rower Tom Guest up front. Bath have the powerful ball-carrier Dave Attwood in their boilerhouse and his performance will be of interest to the England selectors ahead of this summer’s tour of Argentina.
Exeter (8th) v L Irish (10th)
London Irish may not quite be safe from relegation in mathematical terms, but to all intents and purposes their high-tempo performances since Christmas have secured top-flight status. They will travel to the far south-west in decent heart, with the long-lost England prop Alex Corbisiero on the bench after his latest recovery from a persistent, not to say career-threatening, knee injury.
Exeter lost their popular hooker Simon Alcott to enforced retirement this week, so there will be no shortage of emotional charge about them this afternoon. They have made changes up front as they seek to press their Heineken Cup qualification case, Brett Sturgess returning at prop and Ben White winning the decision at blind-side flanker.
London Welsh (12th) v Northampton (4th)
If everyone likes London Welsh after their brave attempt to make sense of a first top-flight campaign was undermined from the start by the palaver surrounding their promotion, no one likes their chances of making it a happy ending. Adrift at the foot of the table and missing important players in Hudson Tonga’uiha, Gonzalo Tiesi, Gavin Henson, Neil Briggs and Ed Jackson, they must somehow prevail over a powerful Northampton team with the scent of play-off activity in their nostrils. All the big England names – Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Phil Dowson – will be on duty for the Midlanders. It may not be close.
Leicester (2nd) v Wasps (7th)
Leicester threw the kitchen sink at Toulon in last weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter-final and would, if they were remotely normal, be out on their feet. Sadly for Wasps, the Tigers are entirely abnormal when it comes to physical and mental resilience, and with virtually all the front-rankers present and correct – leaving aside the injured Marcos Ayerza, they are at full strength – it will be no surprise if there is a fair bit of one-way traffic tomorrow. Wasps have injury issues and look ripe for the picking off, but whatever happens, they will keep smiling. The arrival of a new money man and the repayment of long-standing tax debts has put them in a sunny place that will not be darkened by defeat.
Saracens (1st) v Worcester (9th)
Saracens are also in serene mood: four points clear at the top of the log, they will secure a home semi-final with victory tomorrow. Much-changed from last weekend’s European victory over Ulster, they still look far too powerful for Worcester – not least because the grand Namibian flanker Jacques Burger is back in the starting line-up after 16 months of injury hassle.
*positions before last night’s match
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