Harlequins seek return to form
March 28, 2013
Nick Easter will captain Harlequins after Chris Robshaw was rested for the trip to Gloucester © Getty Images
Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins will aim to get back to their best when they run out against Gloucester at Kingsholm, in front of the ESPN cameras on Friday evening.
Quins slumped to a lacklustre 27-12 loss away to Saracens last time out and in doing so slipped from first place in the table to third, with their London rivals taking over at the top. Director of rugby Conor O'Shea has rung the changes for the match and Ross Chisholm comes in for Ugo Monye, while George Lowe and Tom Casson take over in the centres from Jordan Turner-Hall and Matt Hopper. Captain Chris Robshaw is rested, with No.8 Nick Easter set to wear the captain's armband.
"Going to the Shed, going to Kingsholm is an experience," O'Shea said. "Under the lights the atmosphere goes up a few octaves and decibels. We know it is a huge test five days after a massive game. They are unbelievably physical upfront - you wouldn't expect anything else from a Gloucester pack, but then you look at the threats they have out wide."
Gloucester have brought in five new faces in the starting team following the 15-14 win over London Welsh last weekend and fly-half Freddie Burns is under no doubt of what sort of side they will face.
"Their loss last week will only make them more dangerous," he said. "They will be back to their best this week, no doubt about it. But you want that, you want teams to come and have a real crack. The performance has got to be right this weekend if we're going to keep our top-four aims going. We've got to be back in top mode come Friday night."
"It's all about how we perform on Friday night," he said. "It's a big game, against a tough opponent who have been trailblazing over the last two or three years in terms of their performances and results. It's about seeing what we can do, and taking our game to the next level."
The second live ESPN match over the weekend comes from the Majeski Stadium as London Irish try to pull further away from danger and Sale Sharks in 11th place. Irish are five points clear of Sale, who in turn are five points clear of bottom-placed London Welsh. As such a win would give the Exiles some much-needed breathing space with three matches remaining.
"I was very pleased with the efforts of our entire squad last weekend," Smith said. "The forward pack fronted up and set a platform for the team to keep the scoreboard moving. On Sunday it is important we keep that same level of performance. Sale are currently playing well so we know it will be another challenge, but one we are ready for."
After going top Saracens face another capital derby, away to London Wasps, who are licking their wounds after letting Northampton Saints in for a last-gasp victory a week ago.
"We are up against a good defensive outfit but it's very important that we back our own ability to break them down," Wasps fly-half Stephen Jones said. "I was impressed with their physicality last weekend, they managed to stop Harlequins' runners straight away and stopped their go forward."
Saracens flanker Will Fraser managed to cross for a try against Harlequins and he is expecting another tough test at Adams Park.
"They've got a very dangerous backline, especially the back three and (Tom) Varndell and (Christian) Wade are the top two try-scorers in the league this year," he said. "They've got carriers all over the pitch, they can run with the ball, they can move the ball and like last weekend our defence has to be spot on."
Bottom-placed London Welsh have another hard assignment away to Bath, as they seek a way of closing the five-point gap to Sale. It has been another tough week for the Exiles who failed in their bid to overturn the five-point punishment for fielding scrum-half Tyson Keats when he was incorrectly registered.
Bath were unable to do London Welsh any favours a week ago when they lost to Sale and their strong form at home suggests that they are likely to add to Exiles' current woes.
"We're expecting them to be unpredictable," Bath defence coach Mike Ford said. "Our defence has got to be strong and I think we can control the game with our defence. Then with the ball in hand we have to combat their blitz defence, which is quite aggressive, but if we get our attack right we can cause them a few problems."
At Franklin's Gardens on Saturday, there will be no love lost between Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers, with the home team scenting a place in the play-offs following their win over Wasps, their fourth consecutive league victory.
"We enjoy playing Leicester and in a way we owe them one because they've been very successful against us in recent years," Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder said. "We went up there and got beaten and they came up here last year and beat us. It is a big game, it is Leicester, but for us it's where we are and it's about us getting another win."
Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill has named an unchanged side for a clash with another team in the pack chasing Saracens and Harlequins in the top two places.
"Fixtures between Leicester and Northampton are always very competitive and we're both chasing semi-final spots," Cockerill said. "We had a very good win at Exeter last week, the international boys came back in and got straight into it, and we'll be up for the battle.
"Saints are a very good team and we'll both be going into it in a positive frame of mind. Both sides want to play and score tries."
Worcester Warriors host Exeter Chiefs at Sixways, with the home side needing a win to draw further away from the relegation dogfight and the Chiefs trying desperately to reach the Heineken Cup places.
"Semisi will start," he said. "When he was playing earlier this season he made a massive impact with his ball carrying and he was a big player for us in that respect. We've missed him - there's no doubt about that. He got 20 minutes last weekend and I'm now convinced he's fully fit and ready to go."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jim Mallinder and Justin Burnell were sat on the same top table, but in different circumstances. Tom Hamilton reports on the Aviva Premiership season launch
Tom Hamilton reports back from the launch of the Guinness PRO12 where there is a renewed sense of optimism with all of the off-field changes to the league
So much for the great Australian revival, writes Greg Growden. It now has the potential of going off the rails after the capitulation at Eden Park
The latest Week in Pictures takes in photographs from the Rugby Championship, the Top 14 and the southern hemisphere domestic scene