Aviva Premiership preview: Harlequins desperate to end losing run

A look ahead to this weekend's action

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The Independent Online

With the Heineken Cup quarter-finals looming on the horizon, the Aviva Premiership will provide the last chance to gain some momentum before attentions turn to Europe once more. And for league champions Harlequins, they will be desperate for a win to avoid a third straight defeat following losses to Exeter Chiefs and league leaders Saracens.

It doesn't get any easier for Conor O'Shea's side either, with a trip to Kingsholm to face Gloucester kicking the weekend off on Friday night. Following their 27-12 defeat at Allianz Park, Quins find themselves in third place in the league behind Sarries and Leicester Tigers.

With the visit of Munster to the Twickenham Stoop just one week away, O'Shea makes six changes to the starting line-up with the news that England captain Chris Robshaw is rested for this weeks game, with Luke Wallace coming into the back-row to join Tom Guest and Nick Easter.

Elsewhere, Ross Chisholm replaces Ugo Monye on the wing, while an all-new centre partnership sees George Lowe and Tom Casson come in for Jordan Turner-Hall and Matt Hopper. Rob Buchanan starts at hooker, and Olly Kohn returns from injury to partner George Robson in the second-row.

Quins head to the West Country knowing that they haven't beaten Gloucester at Kingsholm in 14 years, and the Cherry and Whites director of rugby Nigel Davies has made five changes to maintain their push for the play-offs.

The one change in the backs sees Henry Trinder replace Mike Tindall in the centre as Gloucester continue to field an all-English back-line. Koree Britton makes his first Premiership start at hooker, and Lua Lokotui joins Jim Hamilton in the second-row. Tom Savage and Akapusi Qera return to the back-row in place of Andy Hazell and Peter Buxton as Davies refreshes his flankers.

Saturday's action sees an early kick-off at the Recreation Ground get the day underway as London Welsh visit Bath. The Exiles remain bottom of the table following their rejected appeal this week over their five-point deduction for fielding the ineligible Tyson Keats in 10 games before Christmas.

With them now five points adrift from safety, wins are becoming a necessity if they wish to remain in the top-tier next season, but they will be facing a Bath side that still harbour hopes of a top six and Heineken Cup qualification place. Bath sit seventh in the table and four points behind sixth-placed London Wasps, but with the London side facing rivals Saracens this weekend, it could be their best opportunity to make up ground on the teams above them.

That match-up takes place at Adams Park, and Wasps will be hurting after their narrow loss to the Northampton Saints last time out. A Christian Daly try and a last-play-of-the-game conversion from Stephen Myler condemned Wasps to their first home defeat of the season, and despite having leading try-scorers Tom Varndell and Christian Wade on the wings, they will have been worried at how easily the Saints pack dominated their counterparts.

Saracens meanwhile head to High Wycombe after comprehensively beating their championship rivals Harlequins last Sunday. With their International contingent back, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and Kelly Brown all stood out in the victory, as did England hopeful Will Fraser, who turned in another accomplished performance as his stock continues to grow.

The Barnet outfit are unbeaten in their last four Premiership outings, and they will look to stretch their five-point lead at the top of the table with two of their play-off rivals clashing this weekend.

Northampton Saints host Leicester Tigers in a Midlands derby that always produces fireworks of one kind or another. The Tigers moved above Harlequins following their narrow victory over Exeter Chiefs last week, when they saw a late Gareth Steenson penalty drop just short of the posts handing them a 12-9 win.

Saints are now just a point behind Harlequins, and four points behind a home semi-final place. They will be looking to consolidate their play-off qualification first though, with Gloucester breathing down their necks, and Jim Mallinder's side may see themselves out of the play-offs come kick-off should Gloucester claim a bonus point win on Friday night.

The Tigers ran out 16-12 winners when the two met at Welford Road in November, so the Saints will be out for revenge at Franklin's Gardens, however they haven't beaten Leicester at home in the Premiership since the opening round of the 2010/11 season.

Worcester Warriors will host the Exeter Chiefs on Saturday afternoon in an eighth-vs-ninth clash in which the home side will be desperate for a change in fortunes following their 26-6 mauling at the hands of London Irish last time out.

The Warriors have only won once in their last seven outings - a 29-23 victory over London Wasps - and the Sixways faithful will be looking for one more victory to consolidate their Premiership survival. Worcester have not beaten the Chiefs in their last three attempts, and they went down heavily 33-9 the last time the two met in November.

For the Chiefs, they will still have hopes of catching sixth-placed Wasps and qualify for another season of Heineken Cup rugby. Having hosted defending European champions Leinster at Sandy Park this season, and doing themselves proud finishing third in their group, they will be giving everything and more to maintain their position in the top tier of European rugby.

The final game of the weekend sees London Irish and Sale Sharks face-off at the Madejski Stadium on Sunday afternoon, and the winner will go a long way to deciding their Premiership survival fate this year. With London Welsh five points behind 11th-placed Sale, and Irish another five points ahead, a win for the Sharks could see them potentially move ten points clear of Welsh, and with just three rounds remaining after this weekend, a turnaround would be near-impossible.

For Irish, they appear to be edging towards safety, but will be wary that a Sharks victory will drag them back down the table. Irish's home record makes them the favourites for the game, having not lost at the Madejski since Leicester won 9-31 back in December.

Sale beat Irish in round nine 21-9 when they met at the Salford City Stadium, and they will be hoping to complete their first double over the Reading outfit since the 2005/6 season. The Sharks have not won at Irish since October 2006 though, and it's a record Steve Diamond's side will want to rectify as they push for another year in the Premiership.


Aviva Premiership - Round 19:

Gloucester v Harlequins - Friday 7.45pm

Bath v London Welsh - Saturday 2.15pm

London Wasps v Saracens - Saturday 3pm

Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers - Saturday 3pm

Worcester Warriors v Exeter Chiefs - Saturday 3pm

London Irish v Sale Sharks - Sunday 2.15pm