Weekend preview: Sarries seek to nail home semi and lighten load
Saracens v Northampton (2pm Saturday)
Seven points clear at the top and 14 ahead of Leicester in third, Saracens will have to mess up badly to deny themselves a home semi-final next month (not that ground advantage did them a fat lot of good at the same stage last season). Yet the Londoners would like to nail things down as quickly as possible: they are fighting on two fronts as the last English team standing in the Heineken Cup, injuries are kicking in, and as the head coach Mark McCall knows full well, it is easier to manage a squad when some games are less important than others.
With the No 8 Ernst Joubert incapacitated for the rest of the season and the England full-back Alex Goode still feeling the effects of last week’s aerial misadventure in Belfast, there are starts tomorrow for the excellent Chris Wyles and the fast-developing Jackson Wray. Northampton are without their stricken captain Dylan Hartley, but will be fully loaded otherwise. Not that they have a choice in the matter with a top-two finish still far from secure.
Worcester v Exeter (3pm Saturday)
This is it as far as the Midlanders are concerned: failure to beat a fast-fading Exeter will just about finish them off as a Premiership concern. Happily for them, the Samoan wing David Lemi is fit to start – it seems prayers are occasionally answered, even at God-forsaken Sixways – and as the game is being played today rather than tomorrow, the devout front-rower Euan Murray is available to anchor the scrum. The visitors, meanwhile, have switched their ultra-athletic captain, the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm, to the open-side flank.
London Irish v Newcastle (3pm Sunday)
Should Worcester mess up, the Tynesiders will virtually close the deal on top-flight survival with victory at the Madejski Stadium. They travel under the leadership of Will Welch, the back-rower having recovered from injury, and have a new-look scrummaging unit, with Grant Shiells and Matt Thompson joining Oliver Tomaszczyk, a real heart-and-soul merchant. The Exiles, stuck in no man’s land table-wise, cannot find a place for the England wing Marland Yarde.
Gloucester v Bath (3.15pm Sunday)
Talking of England players struggling for game time, the No 8 Ben Morgan and the outside-half Freddie Burns also know how it feels. Neither starts for Gloucester in today’s West Country derby at Castle Grim – an important match for both sides, if for different reasons. A victory for the Cherry and Whites will push them closer to seventh and a play-off shot at qualification for the new European Rugby Champions Cup. A win for the visitors, who have changed a third of their side, will address a bad case of the jitters that threatens to undermine their semi-final ambitions.
Leicester v Wasps (3pm Saturday)
Somehow, it is not entirely obvious that Wasps feel they can win this game. Their Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Gloucester last weekend took a heavy toll – Andrea Masi, Joe Simpson, Jake Cooper-Woolley and Kearnan Myall all copped it – and by leaving players as good as Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones and Elliot Daly on the bench… well, it tells its own story. Leicester? They’re on a roll. It could be messy.
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