Weekend preview: Wasps prepare Wade and Varndell to pull plug on Bath's hopes
Exeter v Northampton
A "no prisoners" kind of game in prospect. Northampton deprived the Devonians of a place in last season's play-offs and after their fine Heineken Cup win in Ulster and last week's desperately close shave against Saracens, they are in a good place to hurt them again – not least because Exeter have lost their much-improved loose-head prop Brett Sturgess to long-term injury. The Saints have two of their most effective forwards, Samu Manoa and Tom Wood, on the bench, but are fully armed outside the scrum. Exeter have picked their quickest flank combination in Tom Johnson and Ben White.
Gloucester v London Irish
Alex Corbisiero, such an influential figure for England during the autumn, returns to the Exiles' front row with a big question mark hovering over his future at the club. Northampton are said to be his preferred employers for next season. Jonathan Joseph, asked to play on the wing today, is another red-rose player apparently heading out – to Bath, in his case. Irish could do without the uncertainty, given their parlous position in the table, and with Gloucester picking from strength, this is another difficult outing. Tom Savage, a big contributor this term, returns to the Cherry and White engine room.
London Welsh v Harlequins
Like newly promoted sides before them – Exeter spring to mind – London Welsh are least comfortable against opponents capable of maintaining a high tempo. Wasps demonstrated as much last week and Quins, table-toppers by a point, will not exactly be short of gas either, especially with Tom Guest and George Lowe back in the starting line-up at flanker and centre respectively. The home side have done brilliantly thus far, but they remain vulnerable. The sooner Gavin Henson and Hudson Tonga'uiha return from injury to boost their midfield, the better placed they will be to secure the points that will keep them up.
Saracens v Sale
Mark McCall, the Saracens coach, promised to give Owen Farrell game time in his England position of outside-half, and he has been good to his word. Farrell performs the pivot role tomorrow. With Steve Borthwick back from a week's rest, the home side look seriously well-equipped up front, and it will be interesting to see if the rugged flanker Will Fraser continues to make his presence felt. Sale? They are quite a cabaret at the moment, what with sackings, retirements and other forms of sudden departures. Vicarage Road is not the place to go when you are eyeball-deep in turmoil.
Wasps v Bath
The most intriguing game of the weekend pits one of the Premiership's sharpest attacks against one of its least penetrable defences. Wasps have Christian Wade and Tom Varndell on the wings, both of whom might still be in a respectable distance of Usain Bolt at the end of a 100m dash, and have plumped for an interesting back-row combination featuring two players blessed with a touch of stardust in Ashley Johnson and Billy Vunipola. Bath need a performance: if they draw a blank tomorrow, their prospects of securing a Heineken Cup place next season will look far from healthy.
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