Top two clash at Wembley
March 28, 2012
Harlequins went back to the top after their win over Bath © Getty Images
Saracens will have the chance to overhaul Harlequins at the top of the Premiership table when the top two meet at Wembley this Saturday.
Quins have led the way since September but Sarries briefly went top with a thumping win over Sale last Friday before Conor O'Shea's men regained pole position with a narrow victory over Bath on Saturday. And a victory at Wembley, which is set to boost a crowd of almost , would see Sarries jump ahead of their rivals. England trio Owen Farrell, David Strettle and Mouritz Botha all return for Sarries but young Farrell defers the No.10 shirt to Charlie Hodgson. England captain Chris Robshaw returns to skipper Quins, but hooker Joe Gray has been ruled out by injury and is replaced by England Under-20 international Rob Buchanan. Quins are unchanged behind the scrum.
However defeat could see them concede second spot to Leicester Tigers, who face Worcester Warriors at Welford Road on Friday night. The Tigers are hot on the heels of the top two after nine wins in their last ten Premiership matches and victory over the Warriors would take them second, if only for half a day. Richard Cockerill's men have scored 119 points in their last three games. James Grindal takes the scrum-half role after Leicester suspended their England No.9 Ben Youngs ahead. Elsewhere, wing Alesana Tuilagi, centre Anthony Allen, prop Martin Castrogiovanni and flanker Tom Croft all return to starting duty. Worcester show two changes from the side that beat relegation-haunted Newcastle at Sixways last time out with Matt Kvesic in for Jake Abbott and Blair Cowan packing down at No.8.
Northampton Saints currently occupy the fourth play-off place. They play the inconsistent Bath at the Rec on Saturday afternoon as they look to consolidate their place in the top four. However their progress could be hampered by the loss of Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark, both of whom are suspended for the foreseeable future. Bath have suffered narrow defeats to Harlequins and Gloucester in the Premiership recently but recorded wins over Worcester and Exeter. World Cup winner Stephen Donald has recovered from injury to return as fly-half at the Recreation Ground. Elsewhere, Nick Abendanon starts in the full-back position, with Matt Banahan on the right-wing and Dan Hipkiss joining Matt Carraro in midfield, while changes up-front include a start for flanker Ben Skirving.
The Chiefs, who are are still in the hunt for a top four finish with four rounds remaining, host London Irish at Sandy Park on Sunday. A remarkable victory over Gloucester last weekend will have built Exeter's belief while successive defeats to Wasps and Leicester have severed the Exiles' distant hopes of contesting the play-offs. The Chiefs are unchanged again and the Exiles make a solitary change with Adrian Jarvis starting at fly-half in an Exiles side skippered by lock Nick Kennedy.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle Falcons host Sale Sharks at Kingston Park on Friday night. The Falcons appear to be fighting a losing battle against relegation and face another tough task against a Sale side chastened by thumping defeats to Saracens and Exeter in recent weeks. Newcastle are boosted by hooker Rob Vickers' return from suspension, while Tom Bedford replaces wing Alex Tait as the only other change. Sale hand call-ups to centre Johnny Leota and back-row forward Richie Vernon. Luther Burrell and Mark Easter drop to the bench.
Wasps, who take on Gloucester at Adams Park, hold an eight-point advantage over Newcastle and a victory on Sunday would allow Dai Young to breathe a little easier. Young has made two changes from the side beaten by Northampton six days ago. Paul Emerick replaces injured centre Dom Waldouck, with back-row forward Billy Vunipola in for Jonathan Poff. Gloucester, beaten in injury time by Exeter last Saturday, show five changes from that game. Henry Trinder, fit again after suffering a broken jaw, partners Tim Molenaar in midfield, while there are also starts for scrum-half Nick Runciman, lock Tom Savage, who replaces an unwell Alex Brown, and flanker Peter Buxton.
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