Weekend preview: Saints’ hopes face severe local test from reviving Tigers
Northampton v Leicester (3.15pm Saturday)
It would be a classic Colosseum contest between the lions and the Christians, if only it were possible to work out who was who. East Midlands derbies are never short of decibels when it comes to the smack of muscle on bone, but today’s little shindig will be deafening, such is the growing rivalry between Leicester, the biggest club in the country as well as the reigning champions, and Northampton, who intend to relieve their neighbours of both titles.
The home side are in full warpaint, with Dylan Hartley at hooker, Courtney Lawes at lock and the unholy trinity of Calum Clark, Phil Dowson and Tom Wood forming what might euphemistically be described as a no-nonsense back row. Leicester have the comparatively angelic Mathew Tait at full-back – the man described by his own head coach as “the slowest-healing player in rugby history” has recovered from an ankle injury. Otherwise the Tigers are sticking with the men who hammered Exeter last time out.
Newcastle v Worcester (2pm Sunday)
The Tynesiders could mess up tomorrow and still be reasonably confident of retaining Premiership status, but if the result goes the wrong way for Dean Richards’ men, the concluding weeks of the campaign will be just a little uncomfortable. On the face of it, there is enough attacking ability in the Newcastle back line to kill the relegation debate stone dead. On the other hand, there are good reasons why they have not won a league game since late October.
Worcester would be in a far happier place if their losing streak had lasted a mere five months. Instead, it has been going on for more than a year. Some of those defeats have been last-gasp affairs but the fact remains they are a dozen points adrift at the foot of the table with five to play. And as this important game is being played on the sabbath, they must do without their most experienced tight forward, the Scottish prop Euan Murray, whose religious convictions prevent him participating.
Harlequins v London Irish (3pm Saturday)
Having gone light into last weekend’s Wembley meeting with Saracens – no Mike Brown, no Danny Care, no Chris Robshaw – and finished a distant second, Quins load up with big-name internationals for this one. The 2012 champions cannot afford to go soft again: if they do, their chances of a semi-final place will evaporate. However, the return of the red-rose trio makes them hot favourites.
Wasps v Saracens (3pm Saturday)
Tom Palmer, the England lock who has signed a contract with Gloucester for next season, returns to the Wasps engine room, bridging the chasm left by the outstanding Joe Launchbury, who is resting under the “elite player” agreement. Launchbury’s absence hardly helps the home side against opponents who find it much easier to compensate for the absence of front-line players. The league leaders start without Chris Wyles, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth, Schalk Brits and Jacques Burger, yet can still field a dozen internationals.
Exeter v Gloucester (3pm Saturday)
Exeter began their Premiership existence with a famous victory over Gloucester and fancy their chances of doing something similar today, despite a chastening experience at Leicester six days ago. Tom Johnson, the England flanker, is back on the beat, while Matt Jess is no mean replacement for Jack Nowell, the injured red-rose wing. As for Gloucester, Jonny May, Billy Twelvetrees and Ben Morgan are back.
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