Saracens v Exeter (Saturday, 3.15pm)
Saracens are too hard-headed to assume they will always win more than they lose, but the events of recent weeks have knocked them sideways even so: a 64-point rugby version of an oil spillage on home soil against Wasps; a profligate draw at Sale; painful defeats by Northampton and Leicester. Their decision to throw the paint pot at this one, therefore, comes as little surprise.
George Kruis, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers are back in the starting pack after a long tour of Six Nations duty; Alex Goode and Owen Farrell resume as playmakers-in-chief outside the scrum. They are turning a cold eye on the pretenders from the West Country, that’s for sure.
Exeter have rested the free-scoring James Short and there is no sign of the England wing Jack Nowell, but they are by no means weak on the team sheet. Not with Henry Slade in midfield, Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker and a full-strength quintet in the second and back rows.
Worcester v London Irish (Saturday, 5.30pm)
Three wins off the reel have more or less done the trick for the Midlanders in survival terms, but they would love to establish a club record for consecutive Premiership victories by prevailing here. To that end, the dangerous Cooper Vuna returns to the wing and will operate alongside two other useful southern hemisphere outside-backs in Bryce Heem and Wynand Olivier, not to mention the influential Springbok scrum-half Francois Hougaard.
The Exiles pretty much have to win and have restored the promising Elliott Stooke to the engine room and have the high-value Samoan back-rower Ofisa Treviranus on the bench after injury.
Northampton v Harlequins (Sunday, 3.15pm)
Things are heating up in the race for play-off places, hence the decision of these two challengers to spice up their starting line-ups at the first available post-Six Nations opportunity. Quins, who yesterday confirmed that their rugby director Conor O’Shea will take charge of Test affairs in Italy at season’s end, have ditched two-thirds of the players who came up short against Worcester last time out: the England contingent are back in volume, with Danny Care making his 200th appearance for the club at scrum-half, and there are also run-on places for the Scotland wing Tim Visser and the Wales centre Jamie Roberts.
Northampton have restricted themselves to five switches in personnel, but they are more than a little significant. George North, Luther Burrell, Stephen Myler, Kieran Brookes and Tom Wood make up the incoming quintet.
Newcastle v Wasps (Sunday, 3pm)
The fuller-figured Andy Goode is likely to make his final appearance off the bench for relegation-threatened Newcastle before taking his periphery back to the periphery, and if he can deliver some much-needed points against his old playmates, the Tynesiders will be eternally grateful. Even though they will know the situation with London Irish before kick-off, this amounts to a must-win game.
Gloucester v Bath (Saturday, 5.30pm)
Bath will look a little more like their old selves with Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and George Ford back between the shafts, while Gloucester can call up form international players in the contrasting shapes of Greig Laidlaw, the Scotland scrum-half, and Ross Moriarty, the Wales back-rower. Neither team is threatening to win silverware, but tribalism being what it is…
Sale v Leicester (Sunday, 1pm)
No rest for the wicked, or indeed the righteous: Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole are back in the thick of it after events in Paris. Sale must do without the suspended Johnny Leota, but Sam Tuitupou and Sam Jomes are nobody’s pushovers in midfield.
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