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Guinness Premiership - Round 17
Premiership play-off race hots up
Scrum.com
March 12, 2009

In the shadow of the Six Nations, the Guinness Premiership reaches Round 17 this weekend with the battle for the play-offs set to intensify.

The Match of the Week sees leaders Gloucester entertain London Wasps at Kingsholm with the visitors under pressure to produce another big performance to follow up their victory over London Irish last time out. The West Country side will also be determined to get back to winning ways after a demoralising loss to Leicester last weekend.

The action gets underway on Friday night when the beleaguered Bristol play host to title-chasing Leicester at the Memorial Stadium. Bristol hooker Mark Regan is set for his 200th Premiership appearance - becoming only the fourth player to do so - while prop Alex Clarke makes his first start since December in one of several changes made by coach Paul Hull.

The back three is reshuffled with Luke Arscott returning at fullback and brother Tom resuming his usual berth on the right wing. David Lemi is named on the left wing having recovered from injury. Elsewhere, Robert Sidoli, back after a lengthy injury enforced absence, replaces Nathan Budgett, who has a sore achilles, in the second row and Alfie To'oala packs down on the blindside.

England international centre Dan Hipkiss returns to the Leicester Tigers line-up after missing the last seven matches with injury, which means a switch to the wing for Matt Smith and a move to fullback for Scott Hamilton in the absence of Geordan Murphy. In the forwards, Mefin Davies takes over at hooker, Dan Cole is named at tighthead and Marco Wentzel covers for a number of absentees in the back row. There is also a place on the bench for wing Tom Varndell who returns to club duty after playing at the IRB World Sevens in Dubai last weekend. [Teams]

Elsewhere on Saturday, Sale travel to Franklin's Gardens to take on Northampton. Sale have been boosted by the return of Scotland fullback Rory Lamont, who has been sidelined with an injury since December. Lamont slots in to the back-three alongside Selorm Kuadey and David Doherty, while Charlie Hodgson and Chris Leck start at halfback.

Northampton boss Jim Mallinder has turned to Barry Everitt at fly-half, with Stephen Myler manning the bench. Ben Foden starts at fullback once again after his release from the England squad, while Scotland winger Sean Lamont returns to action with a place on the bench. [Teams]

On Sunday, London Irish and Worcester go head-to-head at the Madejski Stadium. London Irish have made a single change, with Tom Homer replacing the injured Shane Geraghty at fullback. Mike Catt continues at fly-half alongside Paul Hodgson, while Steffon Armitage starts on the bench after being released from the England squad.

Worcester have made three changes for the game, with Welsh trio Darren Morris, Ryan Powell and Hal Luscombe all handed starts. Morris starts in the front-row alongside Matt Mullan and Aleki Lutui, with Powell starting at scrum-half and Luscombe slotting in to the centres. Loan signing Willie Walker continues at fly-half. [Teams]

Newcastle take on Harlequins at Kingston Park on Sunday. Newcastle have handed a full debut to winger Andrew Fenby after Danny Williams was ruled out with an ankle injury, giving 23-year-old Fenby the chance to improve upon the try he scored during last weekend's win over Sale. Elsewhere for the Falcons there is a recall for England Under-20s fly half Rob Miller on the bench.

Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards has made two changes to his side for the trip to Kingston Park. Danny Care and Ugo Monye are both away with England so Andy Gomarsall and Tom Williams return at scrum-half and wing respectively. De Wet Barry and Junior Poluleuligaga slot on to the bench in their place. [Teams]

Saracens and Bath wind up the weekend's action at Vicarage Road on Sunday. Saracens director of rugby Eddie Jones has shuffled his pack after last weekend's defeat to Harlequins, with locks Kris Chesney and Tom Ryder coming in and Chris Jack shifting into the back-row alongside Wikus Van Heerden and Ben Skirving. Rodd Penney starts on the wing after Noah Cato was ruled out with a hamstring injury and Brad Barritt starts at inside-centre.

Nick Abendanon starts at fullback for Bath, with Joe Maddock and Matt Banahan starting out wide. Andrew Higgins drops to the bench, while Scott Bemand and Butch James continue at halfback. James Scaysbrook continues on the openside in the absence of skipper Michael Lipman and in the front row there are starts for David Flatman, Rob Hawkins and Duncan Bell. [Teams]

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