The Aviva Premiership is under fire from those members of the rugby public – conservative estimates put the figure at 100 per cent – who do not believe for a second that each and every club is operating within the salary cap and do not trust the motives behind proposals to scrap promotion and relegation from the end of next season.
If the movers and shakers thought they might dodge at least one bullet when Northampton named their side for the East Midlands derby with Leicester, they had another think coming.
Had the reigning champions chosen a first-choice team for the trip to Welford Road despite having already nailed down a home semi-final, there would have been deep sighs of relief from Exeter, whose own chances of a play-off place will almost certainly wither and die if Leicester win. Unfortunately for the West Countrymen, most of Northampton’s big hitters will be resting ahead of next week’s last-four tie against opponents still to be confirmed.
The last thing the regular season needs is its finale to be distorted by a self-serving selection policy, but with the Pisi brothers, Stephen Myler, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Calum Clark and the formidable Samu Manoa all confined to the sofa, and two other first-choice players, the England hooker Dylan Hartley and the organiser-in-chief Christian Day, slumming it on the bench, distorted it will be.
Judging by the ferocity of Leicester’s performance at Wasps a week ago, they would have fancied themselves against the very strongest of Northampton outfits. Under the circumstances, they must be super-confident of doing the necessary in front of what is certain to be the most raucous of audiences – especially as the influential Ed Slater is fit to start, albeit on the flank rather than at lock.
Exeter’s joy at beating Saracens in north London six days ago was not quite as unbridled as it might have been, for they understood immediately how the numbers were stacking up. While Sarries start this final round of matches in fifth, they will surely beat London Welsh by a landslide and move ahead of the curve in the crucial “points difference” department.
If Leicester are to be an irrelevance to them, Exeter must not only see off Sale at Sandy Park but also keep pace with Saracens on the scoreboard. This seems barely possible: for one thing, they will be without the injured Dave Ewers, the blind-side flanker of the season – an unwelcome development that cancels out the return of the England international Jack Nowell to the back division; for another, Sale are travelling fully loaded in search of a victory that might, with an awful lot of luck, secure elite European rugby next season.
Wasps are currently in the sixth and final Euro qualification spot and should tie things up at London Irish. While the deeply impressive No 8 Nathan Hughes has flown to New Zealand to be at his wife’s side for the birth of their first baby, an even more important player – the England lock Joe Launchbury – is back in the engine room for his first start of 2015.
Elsewhere, there will be a lightweight look to Gloucester when they visit Bath: the Cherry and Whites have European business of their own ahead of them and have therefore named what amounts to a second XV. This does not bode well in the immediate term, for their great West Country foes are at something close to optimum strength.
Harlequins, meanwhile, are handing a debut to the 18-year-old centre Joe Marchant at Newcastle.