Premiership preview: Saracens and Harlequins eye Wembley record but Saints vs Leicester can steal the show

London Irish in last chance saloon at Newcastle while George Ford skippers Bath

Hugh Godwin
Friday 15 April 2016 15:43
Mako Vunipola will captain Saracens against Harlequins at Wembley
Mako Vunipola will captain Saracens against Harlequins at Wembley

Worcester Warriors vs Wasps (Sixways, Saturday, 3pm)

Heady days at Sixways, as Worcester are safe from relegation with three matches to spare, after their promotion last summer. Tom Biggs, Ryan Mills, Nick Schonert, Jaba Bregvadze and Phil Dowson return to a team seeking a fourth home league win on the spin, guided by the March Premiership player of the month Francois Hougaard at scrum-half.

Wasps give their Australian maestro George Smith a weekend off for only the third time this season, with Tom Young starting on the openside flank as they aim to continue a scintillating run of 11 wins in 12 matches.

George Smith is given a rare weekend off for Wasps

Saracens vs Harlequins (Wembley Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm)

With 82,000 tickets sold, Saracens may nudge the world record for a rugby union club match higher than the 84,068 who saw the cocks of north London win this derby fixture 42-14 last year. The champions are captained from loosehead prop by Mako Vunipola, with Charlie Hodgson back at fly-half after a six-week lay-off, Owen Farrell on the bench and Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Brad Barritt, Juan Figallo, Alistair Hargreaves, Will Fraser and Jacques Burger among the absentees.

Maro Itoje misses the match after signing a new contract this week

Three wins in their last 10 Premiership matches have slowed Harlequins’ play-off charge, unlike their capital rivals who barring a major collapse are heading for a home semi-final. Quins reckon Nick Evans (leg), James Horwill (leg), George Lowe (hip), Joe Marler (suspension), Winston Stanley (leg) and Luke Wallace (concussion) will be available for next weekend’s European Challenge Cup semi-final against Grenoble – but not for Wembley.

Northampton Saints vs Leicester Tigers (Franklin’s Gardens, Saturday 5.30pm)

You can’t avoid an involuntary intake of breath in contemplation of the local rivals scrapping over what may be a single play-off place between them – if that. Leicester are unchanged from last Sunday’s European rout of Stade Francais, so the juicy match-ups include Manu Tuilagi and Peter Betham opposite Saints’ centres Luther Burrell and George Pisi.

Manu Tuilagi will go up against England team-mate Luther Burrell (Getty)

But while England forwards Tom Wood and Kieran Brookes return for Northampton, they remain without such pillars of their 2014 title-winning team as Dylan Hartley, Calum Clark, Sam Dickinson, Alex Corbisiero, Ben Foden, George North, James Wilson, Lee Dickson and Kahn Foutali’i.

Sale Sharks vs Bath (AJ Bell Stadium, Sunday, 2.30pm)

The sad and sudden retirement of Stuart Hopper due to a back injury leaves Bath under the captaincy of England fly-half George Ford for the meeting of Premiership also-rans in Manchester.

Okay, both clubs retain a shot at a European Champions Cup place but that competition’s name is questionable when qualification may come via seventh place in the Premiership. The Sharks will be captained by centre Sam Tuitupou alongside fellow returnees Will Addison, Eifion Lewis Roberts and Mark Easter, and the teams will meet again in their rearranged fixture at The Rec next weekend.

Stuart Hooper has been forced to retire due to injury 

Newcastle Falcons vs London Irish (Kingston Park, Sunday, 3pm)

It’s a relegation 10-pointer at Kingston Park, with bottom club London Irish in great peril of ending their 20-year run in England’s top division. Anything less than a win will be the severest setback for the Irish, who are four points behind Newcastle with two rounds to go after this.

The Exiles have won their last four league meetings with the Falcons, and they have been in brave-face mode, signing and re-contracting a bunch of players and launching a new membership scheme.

London Irish must get a result against Newcastle in their bid to stay up

On the downside, Irish have won just once away from home since February 2015. Newcastle’s Argentina centre Gonzalo Tiesi makes his first senior club appearance in more than a year, in front of an expected highest crowd of the season, and one change in the pack brings Sean Robinson into the second row. Alex Lewington on the wing and Jeb Sinclair on the blindside flank are the two changes made by Irish. A late flurry of wins spared them relegation in 2003. If history is to repeat itself, it must start now.

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