Weekend preview: Sarries' spirit faces test after Heineken exit

All games kick off today at 2.30pm

Saracens (1st) v Bath (7th)

The London side guaranteed themselves a home semi-final last month and will finish top with another victory on their artificial pitch, although it will hardly be the end of the world if they slip up against a side still chasing, albeit in fanciful fashion, a Heineken Cup qualifying slot. What is of concern is the spirit in the camp following last weekend’s crushing disappointment at the hands of Jonny Whatsisname. The European title was their principal target this term, and they came up short. The pain must be acute.

All three Sarries anointed by the Lions selectors – the outside-half Owen Farrell, the loose-head prop Mako Vunipola and the tight-head operator Matt Stevens – start this one, although Farrell plays at centre. There will also be a rare appearance from the Newcastle-bound flanker Andy Saull, a one-time England contender who slipped behind Will Fraser in the pecking order and has decided to cut his losses.

Bath will also be saying some fond farewells, most notably to a Lion of their own in Simon Taylor, the Scottish forward. Taylor is heading homewards with one eye on a career in law. Two of his fellow pack members, the prop David Wilson and the lock Dave Attwood, have more of a future than a past in rugby terms and will put themselves in good positions for England honours in Argentina with strong performances today.

Exeter (6th) v Gloucester (5th)

After 16 years of unstinting graft and a late flowering of success, the fine Exeter No 8 Rich Baxter plays his final game this afternoon. Given the emotional surge behind him, it will be surprising indeed if he does not lead the Devonians to victory and secure Heineken Cup rugby for a second successive season.

Not that Gloucester are treating this game lightly. They have already qualified for the elite European tournament and have nothing worth chasing Premiership-wise, but they have named their most vibrant combination nonetheless. The presence of Jonny May, Billy Twelvetrees and Freddie Burns in the back-line and a rejuvenated No 8 in Ben Morgan would probably have attracted a sell-out crowd to Sandy Park. With Baxter bowing out, tickets have become seriously scarce.

H’quins (3rd) v N’ampton (4th)

No Chris Robshaw for the Lions … or for Quins either. The England captain – what a curse that position has become when British Isles selection is up for grabs – is struggling for fitness and makes way for Luke Wallace, one of the many eye-catching graduates of their academy.

Dylan Hartley, fresh from a good-news experience on the Lions front, will lead a Northampton side looking suspiciously like a full-strength unit, positively brimming with attitude. The winning side will finish third, the losers fourth.

Leicester (2nd) v L Irish (9th)

The Tigers are looking extremely threatening: all six of their Lions are in the squad, the scary Fijian wing Vereniki Goneva is back in the mix and almost 24,000 tickets had been sold by close of play yesterday. Under the circumstances, the Exiles might be forgiven for not looking forward to this one with any great relish. There again, so many players are in last hurrah territory – Jonathan Joseph, Alex Corbisiero, Scott Lawson, Matt Garvey and Jamie Gibson are all leaving – there may be an emotional uprising of sorts.

London Welsh (12th) v Worcester (10th)

Welsh are awaiting confirmation of relegation, have lost their principal source of cash and are in the throes of a mass player exodus, which will make their position a little awkward if Newcastle mess up in the Second Division play-offs, Bedford win the title and, having failed the promotion criteria, condemn the Exiles to another season in the top flight.

Sale (11th) v Wasps (8th)

The home side start as favourites: weird, given the traumatic nature of their campaign, but not ridiculous, thanks to Wasps’ freefall in recent weeks. Danny Cipriani will not be facing his old club, for well-known reasons to do with public transport, but the Londoners travel with all their bright young things, including the free-scoring Christian Wade.

Jeremy Clarkson
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