Weekend Preview: Salesi Ma’afu handed baptism of fire by brave Saints


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The Independent Online

Castres v Northampton Today 3.40pm

Australia is not generally the place to go looking for a tight-head prop capable of anchoring the scrum in a new age of set-piece contestability: the Wallaby nation has been creaking in this area since Andrew Blades called it a day after the World Cup triumph in 1999. Yet Northampton have invested a good deal of money and no little faith in Salesi Ma’afu, a Sydneysider who played a year of Test rugby in 2010 before disappearing off the international radar.

Ma’afu has taken a while to climb the Franklin’s Gardens ladder –  rumour had it that he could have been fitter when he arrived in the Midlands – but he is being thrown headlong into the Heineken Cup fires today. It could hardly be a more significant senior debut, given the potency of the French champions’ pack.

Northampton travel with all four of their major summer signings in the starting line-up and will also have the benefit of Luther Burrell’s considerable presence in midfield. If Burrell, who has recovered from an arm  injury at express speed, puts on a  decent show against formidable  opposition, the England selectors will be interested in his services at Twickenham next month.

Harlequins v Scarlets Today 3.40pm

Nick Easter’s sojourn in the second row is over for the time being. The former England forward returns to the No 8 position for this afternoon’s meeting with the most attack-minded of the Welsh regions and he can expect to find himself gasping for air if both sides hit their straps.

The Scarlets are unlikely to scare the Londoners in the tight areas, but they look extremely useful in the back row, where the scavenging Scottish breakaway John Barclay is now in situ, and have some real eye-catchers in the back division, including the Lions centre Jonathan Davies, one of the big hits of last summer’s victory in Australia.

Gloucester v Perpignan Today 6pm

Humiliated up front by Exeter six days ago, the West Countrymen will square up to the powerful Catalans with a remodelled tight unit featuring the Wallaby hooker Huia Edmonds, the local hard-nut prop Shaun Knight and a fresh boilerhouse pairing of Elliott Stooke and James Hudson. Ben Morgan, the struggling England No 8, is nowhere to be seen: not in the run-on team, not on the bench.

Perpignan, one of the French sides guaranteed to throw the full paintbox at this tournament, have most of their hot shots on the team list: James Hook, Lifeimi Mafi, Camille Lopez, Guilhem Guirado… and Luke Narraway, one of England’s lost talents. He will be making a sentimental return to Kingsholm, where he played until the start of last season.

Exeter v Cardiff Blues Tomorrow 12.45pm

The Devonians, flush from their record victory at Gloucester, go into this one without two of their more vibrant backs; the Welsh wing Tom James and the highly regarded young centre Sam Hill being replaced by Fetu’u Vainikolo and Jason Shoemark. Their pack is intact, however: a blessing, if last weekend’s monstering of the Cherry and Whites was anything to go by.

The Blues would have loved to play Owen Williams at outside centre  tomorrow – some good judges believe he has a bright international future at No 13 – but injury dictates otherwise. Elsewhere, the team sheet looks far stronger than recent results might suggest. It could go either way.

Toulon v Glasgow Tomorrow 3pm

Glasgow must make the demanding trip to Toulon without their Lions full-back Stuart Hogg, who has had surgery on a wrist injury and will be incapacitated for several weeks – bad news for country as well as club. Not that Gregor Townsend’s side would have expected to win on the Riviera anyway. The reigning champions are so ridiculously strong they have named Carl Hayman, Steffon Armitage, Danie Rossouw, Frédéric Michalak, Mathieu Bastareaud and Drew Mitchell on the bench!