Quins and Tigers set for showdown
February 14, 2013
Harlequins suffered a surprise defeat to London Wasps last weekend © Getty Images
Aviva Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers travel to second-placed Harlequins on Saturday night with the hosts looking to reclaim top spot.
The Tigers, who are only ahead on points difference, will be out for revenge having been beaten by Quins at Welford Road in September and in last season's title decider at Twickenham. Quins' 11-match unbeaten run came to an end against Wasps last time out, a defeat which allowed Leicester to stay above them having gone top with victory over London Welsh earlier the same day.
Leicester will be without flanker Tom Croft, whose comeback from a serious neck injury continues to be carefully managed but Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood and Thomas Waldrom are back from England duty. Quins have England scrum-half Danny Care back in their ranks while centre Jordan Turner-Hall is in for George Lowe, and No.8 Nick Easter moves to lock instead of Charlie Matthews.
Third-placed Saracens will be desperate to get back to winning ways and not lose more ground on the top two when they face Exeter Chiefs at the Allianz Stadium, in their first Premiership match on their new artificial pitch. Sarries suffered a surprise 29-16 defeat to relegation-threatened London Irish at the Madejski Stadium last weekend in the absence of England's Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and Owen Farrell and Scotland's Kelly Brown. Exeter Chiefs also lost last time out against Sale Sharks and need a victory to break back into the play-off picture. Damian Welch and Kai Horstmann make their first Premiership starts for Exeter whlie Ian Whitten and Matt Jess come in for Sireli Naqelevuki and Watisoni Votu. Adam Powell, James Short, Mako Vunipola, Mouritz Botha and Will Fraser are included in the Sarries side but Rhys Gill and Schalk Brits are out through injury.
Northampton Saints, who also lost ground on the top four with a 27-11 defeat to fifth-placed Gloucester, face Worcester Warriors at Sixways. Jim Mallinder's men are only five points adrift of fourth-place Wasps but their form, three defeats in their previous four Premiership matches, is causing concern at Franklin's Gardens. Worcester, meanwhile, have lost three on the trot in the Premiership and, with Sale Sharks and London Irish finally finding form at the foot of the table, they could start to feel the pressure.
Andy Goode has recovered from illness to reclaim the Worcester No.10 shirt, replacing Danny Gray. One other change after the loss to Bath is a notable one in the front-row, where Scotland prop Euan Murray packs down instead of Jon Andress. England international forwards Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes return for Northampton as Saints target a response after losing at home to Gloucester last Saturday. Full-back Ben Foden also features, with James Wilson switching to the wing instead of Ken Pisi.
From two teams on the slide to two on the up as London Irish travel to Bath. A fifth league win of the season for Irish could take them above London Welsh in the table and reel in Worcester. But Bath returned to form last weekend against the Warriors with Kyle Eastmond looking a real threat and potential match-winner in their midfield. Bath are boosted by the return of Wales prop Paul James and England tighthead David Wilson while London Irish are unchanged as lock Bryn Evans captains a side that sees Guy Armitage and Shane Geraghty continue as the centre pairing.
On Sunday Wasps, on the back of their thrilling 17-16 win over Harlequins at the Stoop, host Gloucester in front of the ESPN cameras at Adams Park. Wasps have won their last four in the league, which has catapulted them into play-off contention. But they face a tough battle against Gloucester, who are place and two points below them in the table. Wasps make two changes to the side that beat Quins with Stephen Jones starting at No.10 and Andrea Masi returning from international duty. Gloucester retain the side that beat Northampton with the only changes coming on the bench, where Shane Monahan, Dave Lewis, Koree Britton and Jim Hamilton.
In the final fixture of the weekend London Welsh take on Sale Sharks in a massive clash in the context of this season's relegation fight. Sale picked up their third win of the season against Exeter last time out and a bonus-point win could move them to within a point of the Exiles, whom many assumed had overcome anxieties of a swift return to the Championship. Gavin Henson makes his Premiership comeback after injury, lining up in the London Welsh No.10 shirt alongside half-back partner Alex Davies. Other changes from the team beaten at Leicester last time out see starts for prop Paulica Ion and and new signing Julio Cabello in the back-row. Sale are without Wales international scrum-half Dwayne Peel, who suffered a facial injury against Exeter last Friday, so Will Cliff deputises. Up front, Scotland lock Richie Gray returns from Six Nations duty to start.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham