Aviva Premiership preview: George North starts after concussion row with George Kruis ruled out for Saracens

Bristol aim for back-to-back wins as Tom Varndell eyes Mark Cueto's try record, Gloucester rings the changes to Saints clash and Bath and Exeter meet in West Country derby

Jack de Menezes
Friday 30 December 2016 18:09
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George North returns to Northampton's side to face Gloucester
George North returns to Northampton's side to face Gloucester

Bath vs Exeter Chiefs, Saturday 31 December, 15:00

Bath make three changes, all in the pack, for the final Aviva Premiership match of the year as they look to consolidate their place in the top four, though Exeter Chiefs can leap above them into third if the triumph in the West Country derby at The Recreation ground.

Tom Dunn is recalled at hooker, with a reshuffle behind him seeing Matt Garvey shift forward into the second-row so that blindside flanker Tom Ellis and No 8 Zach Mercer can joins Francois Louw in the back-row. There’s a welcome addition on the replacements’ bench too as England wing Anthony Watson returns from the broken jaw that kept him out of the autumn internationals.

Exeter are looking to record their first Premiership victory at The Rec, but will have to do so without Henry Slade after the international suffered a shoulder injury in the bonus-point win over Leicester Tigers last week. He’s replaced at inside centre by Sam Hill, with Joe Simmonds filling the vacancy on the bench.

Sale Sharks vs Bristol Rugby, Sunday 1 January, 14:30

Bristol will aim to make it two consecutive wins when they travel north to take on a Sale Sharks side that shows four new faces from the one that lost to Northampton last time out.

Sam Tuitupou returns at inside centre with Sam James moving to fly-half alongside James Mitchell in an all-new half-back partnership. Josh Beaumont returns at No 8, while Jonathan Mills is handed a start in the second row in what will be his 100th appearance for Sale.

Bristol are forced into their only change as Tusi Pisi is suspended following his red card in the win over Worcester, so Will Hurrell moves inside to accommodate Thretton Palamo at outside centre and Luke Arscott joins the replacements. Wing Tom Varndell has the chance to equal Mark Cueto’s all-time Premiership try record of 90 tries, with Bristol also looking to overtake Worcester for the first time this season and move off the bottom of the Premiership pile.

Leicester Tigers vs Saracens, Sunday 1 January, 15:00

Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill recalls a heavyweight trio for the Tigers’s clash with league leaders Saracens on New Year’s Day, with both Tom Youngs and Dan Cole back in the pack while Ben Youngs comes in at scrum-half.

Both Youngs brothers sat out the defeat by Exeter, while Cole makes his first start since the autumn internationals after suffering a leg injury in England’s win over Australia.

Ben Youngs returns for the first time since England duty 

Saracens make five changes as Schalk Burger, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode all return along with captain Brad Barritt, with director of rugby Mark McCall also making one positional change. With Goode back in at full-back, Sean Maitland returns to the wing along with Ashton, while Maro Itoje returns to the second-row with George Kruis ruled out with injury, so Burger comes in at openside flanker. The only other change comes in the front-row where Juan Figallo starts, while Petrus du Plessis and Jim Hamilton come onto the bench.

Worcester Warriors vs Harlequins, Sunday 1 January, 15:00

Worcester head coach Carl Hogg rings the changes as Warriors look to respond to this week’s disappointing defeat by Bristol when they take on Harlequins on Sunday. Former Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan returns to the starting line-up in a pack that also sees prop Val Rapava Ruskin and hooker Jack Singleton introduced.

The in backline, Ryam Mills starts at 10 while academy product Josh Adams returns at full-back, and lock Tevita Cavunati could make his first appearance since September after returning from injury to join the replacements.

Harlequins have not won a game on the road this season 

Quins will hope to take the momentum from the Twickenham victory over Gloucester to record their first away win of the season, and should have Chris Robshaw back in the side to do so. The England flanker was a late withdrawal from the side that beat the Cherry and Whites, and he returns alongside Alofa Alofa on the wing, with Tim Visser rested.

Gloucester vs Northampton Saints, Sunday 1 January, 15:00

Gloucester ring the changes as director of rugby David Humpreys brings in eight new faces for the visit of Northampton to Kinsholm. Charlie Sharples is ruled out with a knee injury, so David Halaifonua starts on the wing, with Andrew Symons handed his full debut in the centre and Willi Heinz replacing scrum-half and captain Greig Laidlaw.

In the pack, Josh Hohneck moves from tighthead to loosehead to accommodate Salesi Ma’afu, with Jeremy Thrush starting in the second-row. An all new back-row sees Lewis Ludlow join the England capped Matt Kvesic and Ben Morgan, with Ross Moriarty, Jacob Rowan and Gareth Evans dropping out.

Ben Morgan comes back into the Gloucester pack 

There’ll be reason to celebrate for Northampton fly-half Stephen Myler as he starts his 300th appearance for the Saints, but the big story sees George North come back into the side after recovering from concussion suffered against Leicester at the start of the month. Saints avoided any disciplinary action over sending North back on after he suffered a head injury, and the Wales wing replaces Juan Pablo Estelles, who drops to the bench alongside the returning Harry Mallinder.

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