Weekend preview: Wasps' fate rests in hands of their back-row tyros
Wasps v Newcastle
Southern hemisphere types have never understood the British obsession with relegation – very much a product of the football culture that dominates in these parts. But not even a visitor from the Planet Zog would fail to recognise the importance of today's contest. Should the Tynesiders fail to register the bonus-point win they need to survive, it will be another nail in the coffin of professional union in the North. If the Londoners lose heavily and emerge with nothing, their very existence will be in peril.
Wasps field a back-row unit of extreme youth: Joe Launchbury has just turned 21; Sam Jones is 20; Billy Vunipola is in his teens. If they can compensate for their inexperience, a fast back division should do the rest. But Jimmy Gopperth, the outside-half from New Zealand who scores such a high percentage of the visitors' points, is a danger. The kids at Nos 6, 7 and 8 will have to deal with him.
Sale v Harlequins
Sale, a league point shy of guaranteeing a Heineken Cup place next season, field an unfamiliar side, full of English-qualified talent. Could this be something to do with maximising their income from the Rugby Football Union, which dispenses a proportion of its funding on the basis of national allegiance? Perish the thought. Saracens, well placed to take advantage of any slip-up by the leaders in the race for a home semi-final, are not performing handstands at the thought of the northerners competing without Sam Tuitupou, Johnny Leota, Andrei Ostrikov and a variety of internationals. There again, a full-strength Quins are good enough to win in Stockport, whatever the opposing teamsheet might say.
Leicester v Bath
Bath might have had a better shot at Heineken Cup qualification had Sam Vesty not suffered such a pratfall in failing to put a bonus-point try past Wasps last time out, but they would still have needed to win at Welford Road to pip Sale to the last European place. To judge by the way Leicester have been going, there is more chance of Finland beating the All Blacks. This game marks the departure of Sir Ian McGeechan as the West Country club's rugby director, and of Martin Haag as forwards coach. The Tigers? They look settled, secure and threatening.
Saracens v Exeter
Saracens would love a home semi-final, despite their desperation to find a home away from Watford. They are still struggling with back-row injuries but, with Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt in midfield, they should have too much for an Exeter who played, and lost, their personal cup final with Northampton 13 days ago.
Northampton v Worcester
It is difficult to imagine Northampton messing this up. A win of any sort against a side who have won only once on the road this season will be enough to secure a semi-final slot and, to that end, the Saints will field every big gun available to them.
London Irish v Gloucester
A dead game. Bob Casey, the grand old lock from Co Kildare, leads the Exiles in his retirement match, while Gloucester bid farewell to Mike Tindall and Alasdair Strokosch.
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