Premiership weekend preview: Mike Brown back as Harlequins look to sneak past Bath into play-offs
Harlequins v Bath
Bath have been a top-four side all season and top three for most of it, but the first 21 rounds of Premiership rugby count for precious little if the sums fail to add up after round 22.
Victory for Harlequins should see them sneak past Bath and into the semi-finals, although there is a faint possibility of the visitors claiming two points in defeat – which might see them into the play-offs at the expense of the Londoners, depending on the try count. All clear? Excellent.
Realistically, it is winner-takes-all, and Bath would feel a whole lot more confident if three senior forwards – the hooker Rob Webber and the back-rowers Matt Garvey and Francois Louw – were available. Sadly, they are not, and as the centre Kyle Eastmond is out of favour, there is a slightly fragile look about them.
Quins have no such problems – the England full-back Mike Brown returns after injury, as does the ever-reliable lock George Robson – and they start clear favourites.
Leicester v Saracens
This should have been one of the stellar games of the campaign, but circumstances have robbed it of its lustre. Saracens, unchallengeable at the top of the table, are resting front-line personnel by the battalion as they fight on two fronts – James Johnston, the tight-head prop, will be the only first-choice figure on view, and he’s on the bench – so the Tigers should see their title defence gather momentum for the play-offs.
Quite what this says about the integrity of the tournament is worthy of debate: if Leicester win by a landslide – as they well might, with forward Steve Mafi and the Lions flanker Tom Croft back after long absences – some paying to watch a meaningful contest will not be best pleased.
But until someone important recognises the lunacy of stuffing the merry month of May full of knock-out rugby, this nonsense will continue.
Northampton v Wasps
Imagine how Northampton would feel if their chances of a home semi-final were blown sky high by the Saracens selectors. Happily for the Saints, there is no obvious prospect of them losing to an understrength Wasps, who are resting Joe Simpson, Matt Mullan and James Haskell, and have dropped the influential Andy Goode, Joe Launchbury and Ashley Johnson to the bench. Next week’s European play-off with Stade Français may have something to do with it.
Worcester v Gloucester
Relegation must have come as a happy release to Worcester, after almost nine months raging against the dying of the light. They go into this derby close to full strength, with Gloucester pair Jonny May and Henry Trinder in an unfamiliar midfield shorn of the stricken Billy Twelvetrees.
Newcastle v Exeter
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, will be at Kingston Park, and it is a fair bet he’ll be watching the uncapped Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie before next month’s New Zealand tour. Cowan-Dickie starts, as do two bright young midfield things Henry Slade and Sam Hill.
London Irish v Sale
Shane Geraghty, mining a rich vein of form, leads the Exiles from outside-half, but there will be no Danny Cipriani opposite him. The visitors, assured of European rugby next term, have gone for Joe Ford instead, with Nick Macleod on the bench.
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