Weekend preview: Quins welcome back Evans but Flood is in full spate for Tigers
Harlequins v Leicester
Good things come in threes. Harlequins secured their place in next season's Heineken Cup some time ago and followed it up last weekend by qualifying for the Premiership play-offs. Victory over the Leicester hordes today will give them a home semi-final and the advantages that go with it. With the All Black fly-half Nick Evans back in business after injury, there will be no shortage of confidence amongst the Londoners.
Evans is crucial to them: had Quins played him while he was wearing his orthopaedic boot – he did himself a minor mischief during the compelling victory over Saracens at Wembley late last month – he would still have kicked better, both from hand and tee, than most other No 10s in the tournament. But he will have his work cut out to hold Toby Flood here, for the Leicester playmaker is playing his best rugby in ages.
Indeed, Leicester look the part right through the side, from the outstanding Marcos Ayerza at loosehead prop to the returning captain, Geordan Murphy, at full-back. They are particularly efficient in the loose-forward department, with the crack Australian flanker Julian Salvi performing as well for the Tigers as he did for Bath two seasons ago, which is saying something. His tangle with Maurie Fa'asavalu and Chris Robshaw will be one for the connoisseurs.
Gloucester v Sale
Fun and games. A Sale win could cook Gloucester's goose as far as European qualification for next season is concerned, so there is plenty at stake on the field. And off the field? It will be surprising if the rival high-and-mighty contingents can bring themselves to speak to each other over the prawn sandwiches, following the sudden departure of the West Countrymen's head coach, Bryan Redpath, who is widely expected to join... yes, you guessed it.
Gloucester are short of full strength: no Henry Trinder or Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in midfield; no Rory Lawson at scrum-half; no Nick Wood in the front row; no Luke Narraway in the back row. Sale don't like Kingsholm at the best of times and they shipped the best part of 70 points when they ventured there this time last year, but they should at least be competitive against a club in so strange a place.
Exeter v Northampton
Exeter's courageous victory at Worcester last time out has given them an even-money shot at semi-final qualification and, to this end, they have recalled Jason Shoemark at centre for tomorrow's big event at Sandy Park. Shoemark's return sees Phil Dollman move to full-back, at the expense of Luke Arscott.
Northampton, meanwhile, must wish they had Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood and Calum Clark available in the pack. The Midlanders travel with plenty of ammunition, but they rarely offer the same firepower when top personnel go missing. Jim Mallinder, their director of rugby, could be heard arguing yesterday that "Exeter are probably favourites for this game". Who could possibly have imagined him saying such a thing this time last season?
Bath v Wasps
What used to be the game of the year is now a long way short of the game of the weekend. Bath, in a state of flux once again, do not add up to much at the moment. As for Wasps... sadly, they add up to even less, as those trying to find a new buyer for the club are discovering to their discomfort. The relegation-haunted Londoners travel with no fewer than seven players aged 21 or under, and while some of those kids are as bright as buttons – everyone likes the look of Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury and Sam Jones – a little more know-how would be reassuring.
Worcester v London Irish
More flux. The jungle drums are beating out messages about Phil Davies, the respected Worcester forwards coach, being a target for Cardiff Blues, while two of the big three on the Exiles' back-room staff, Toby Booth and Mike Catt, are rumoured to be open to offers. At present, London Irish are ninth – a miserable performance by their standards – while Worcester, fresh from the second tier, are 10th. Only a point separates them and there may not be much more between them today.
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