Preview: Premiership, Round 16
Harlequins will look to cement their place at the top of the Premiership standings when they visit Salford City Stadium on Friday.
Up against the troubled and bottom-placed Sale Sharks, defending champion Quins are expected to collect a full-house five points.
However, there are other equally intriguing encounters Round 15 – staring with Gloucester hosting Worcester Warriors in the other Friday fixture.
Probably the most crucial match of the weekend is when third-placed Leicester Tigers host second-placed Saracens, with both teams desperate to stay in touch with a Quins team just a few points ahead of them on the standings.
Then London Irish welcome London Wasps to the Madejski Stadium in the only match on Sunday – with the Exiles currently in 11th place on 20 points, just one ahead of Sale Sharks.
London Welsh, the other team in the relegation scrap with 22 points in 10th place, travel to Sandy Park on Saturday to face Exeter Chiefs.
Wasps, who head to Reading on the back of a nail-biting 33-29 victory over Gloucester, a win that keeps them in the top four of the Premiership, are getting keeping their feet firmly grounded.
"Our video debrief on Tuesday was pretty sobering," Wasps Director of Dai Young said.
"We rode our luck a bit in a game that we didn't play that well in, apart from a twenty minute spell in the middle, and the boys were left under no illusions about the performance after we looked at it in detail. Both the Harlequins and Gloucester games were games we could have lost but we are getting the rub of the green at the moment which is something that hasn't gone for us over the last year or so."
Young said he is in no way underestimating the challenge that London Irish will present at home.
"I have no doubt they are targeting their home games hard and the fact that they beat Saracens there last time out highlights that. I think they have quality players across their team and I am surprised they are where they are in the table. We know that they are desperate for points and we know what that feels like after last year."
Exeter Chiefs captain Tom Hayes said he and his teammates are also well aware of the threat London Welsh will pose, despite their lowly position on the standings.
Promoted into the top flight for the first time following their Championship triumph over the Cornish Pirates last May, the Oxford-based Exiles have quietly gone about their business another run up the league ladder.
With four victories to their name – including a 16-15 victory over the Chiefs back in September – Hayes knows the Devon club can ill afford to switch off ahead of this latest encounter.
"They are a team that certainly make life hard for their opponents," warned the Irish lock.
"They are a quality side with a lot of strong points in their team as we found out earlier in the season. They know what they want to do in each game and looking at them you can see they are effective in the way they do it.
"Right now they are fighting for everything and they don't tend to lie down in games, so that's also something we need to be aware of going into this weekend's game. I've no doubt they will come here with the view to making life difficult for us, so we've got to be ready to meet that challenge, as well as impose our own game on them."
In what has been a tough period of results for the Chiefs, you have to go back to early December – when London Wasps were the visitors – to note Exeter's last top flight victory.
We look at all the Round 16 action!
Friday, February 22
Gloucester v Worcester Warriors
(Kingsholm – Kick-off: 19.45; 19.45 GMT)
Gloucester tallied a try bonus point in Premiership for the first time since Boxing Day 2011 with their 29-33 defeat at London Wasps on Sunday.
Gloucester's only win in their last four Premiership games was 27-11 at Northampton on 9 February.
Worcester Warriors have slipped to four straight defeats in the Premiership, since their 13-6 victory at home to London Welsh on 21 December.
The Warriors' only away win in the competition since they visited Kingsholm in April 2009 was 6-0 at London Wasps on New Year's Day 2012.
Worcester have won just one of their last five Premiership fixtures with Gloucester: 21-15 at Sixways on 7 January 2012.
Gloucester: 15 Rob Cook, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Henry Trinder, 12 Mike Tindall (captain), 11 Jonny May, 10 Ryan Mills, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Sione Kalamafoni, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Tom Savage, 5 Will James, 4 Lua Lokotui, 3 Rupert Harden, 2 Darren Dawidiuk, 1 Dan Murphy.
Replacements: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 Nick Wood, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Peter Buxton, 20 Andy Hazell, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Shane Monahan, 22 Tim Molenaar, 23 Martyn Thomas.
Worcester Warriors: 15 Errie Claassens, 14 Chris Pennell, 13 Alex Grove, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 David Lemi, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Jonny Arr, 8 Blair Cowan, 7 Matt Kvesic, 6 Sam Betty, 5 Dean Schofield, 4 James Percival (captain), 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ed Shervington, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Aleki Lutui, 17 Ceri Jones, 18 John Andress, 19 Craig Gillies, 20 Jake Abbott, 21 Paul Hodgson, 22 Danny Gray, 23 Jon Clarke.
Referee: David Rose
Assistant Referees: Stuart Terheege and Paul Burton
TMO: Trevor Fisher
Sale Sharks v Harlequins
(Salford City Stadium – Kick-off: 20.00; 20.00 GMT)
Sale Sharks have won their last four matches in all competitions, and their last two in Premiership – they have not won three in a row in the competition since September 2011.
Harlequins went back to the top of the Premiership table following their 25-21 victory over Leicester Tigers at the Twickenham Stoop last Saturday.
Quins have won their last five away games in all competitions since their 18-21 reversal at Bath on 23 November.
Harlequins have won their last five contests with the Sharks in all competitions.
Sale Sharks: 15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Charlie Amesbury, 13 Jonny Leota, 12 Sammy Tuitupou, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Will Cliff, 8 James Gaskell, 7 David Seymour (captain), 6 Dan Braid, 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Henry Thomas, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Eifion Lewis-Roberts, 18 Tony Buckley, 19 Tom Holmes, 20 Richie Vernon, 21 Cillian Willis, 22 Nick Macleod, 23 Will Addison.
Harlequins: 15 Ross Chisholm, 14 Tom Williams, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Ben Botica, 9 Karl Dickson, 8 Nick Easter (captain), 7 Luke Wallace, 6 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 5 George Robson, 4 Charlie Matthews, 3 James Johnston, 2 Joe Gray, 1 Mark Lambert.
Replacements: 16 Rob Buchanan, 17 Darryl Marfo, 18 Will Collier, 19 Sam Twomey, 20 Joe Trayfoot, 21 Jordan Burns, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 George Lowe.
Referee: Martin Fox
Assistant Referees: Robin Goodliffe & Gareth Copsey.
Saturday, February 23
Exeter Chiefs v London Welsh
(Sandy Park – Kick-off: 15.00; 15.00 GMT)
Exeter Chiefs are winless in their last five Premiership matches since beating London Wasps at Sandy Park on 1 December.
The Chiefs are without a victory in their last two Premiership games at Sandy Park and have never gone three home games in a row without a win in the competition.
London Welsh have won only one of their last ten encounters in all competitions since early December: 62-5 at home to Prato in the European Challenge Cup on 12 January.
The Exiles' solitary away win in the Premiership so far came at Sale in round two.
London Welsh won the only previous Premiership encounter between the two clubs, 25-24 at Kassam Stadium in Round Three.
Welsh have never won in five previous visits to Sandy Park, whilst their most recent victory on Exeter soil was 24-18 at the old County Ground in National One on 28 October 2000.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Sireli Naqelevuki, 12 Jason Shoemark, 11 Matt Jess, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Haydn Thomas, 8 Richard Baxter, 7 James Scaysbrook, 6 Ben White, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 Tom Hayes (captain), 3 Hoani Tui, 2 Jack Yeandle, 1 Carl Rimmer.
Replacements: 16 Neil Clark, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Alex Brown, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Dave Ewers, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Ignacio Mieres, 23 Phil Dollman.
London Welsh: 15 Tom Arscott, 14 Phil MacKenzie, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Seb Jewell, 11 Nick Scott, 10 Gavin Henson, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Ed Jackson, 7 Julio Cabello Farias, 6 Adam Balding, 5 Matt Corker, 4 Jonathan Mills (captain), 3 Greg Bateman, 2 Neil Briggs, 1 Franck Montanella.
Replacements: 16 Dan George, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 James Tideswell, 19 Martin Purdy, 20 Michael Hills, 21 Rob Lewis, 22 Gordon Ross, 23 Sonny Parker.
Referee: Andrew Small
Assistant Referees: Andrew Pearce and Peter Huckle
Northampton Saints v Bath
(Franklin's Gardens – Kick-off: 15.00; 15.00 GMT)
Northampton Saints have won just two of their last five Premiership matches, against Exeter and Worcester.
Saints' only win in their last four Premiership contests at Franklin's Gardens was 23-16 over London Welsh on 24 November.
Bath have won their last six matches in all competitions since their 15-29 reversal at London Wasps on 6 January. Bath have won just one away game in the Premiership since 25 February 2012: 24-23 at Worcester on 1 September.
Bath have not beaten the Saints at Franklin's Gardens since 22 April 2000, however Bath did win a Premiership game at the famous old venue in November 2004, beating Saracens there 37-30.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 James Wilson, 13 George Pisi, 12 Tom May, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson,8 GJ van Velze, 7 Ben Nutley, 6 Phil Dowson (captain), 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Tom Mercey, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Soane Tomga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran Jones, 19 James Craig, 20 Rhys Oakley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Dom Waldouck.
Bath: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Matt Banahan, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Tom Biggs, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Ben Skirving, 7 Mat Gilbert, 6 Carl Fearns, 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Dominic Day, 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Rob Webber (captain), 1 Charlie Beech.
Replacements: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Kane Palma-Newport, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Nick Koster, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Sam Vesty, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni.
Referee: Luke Pearce
Assistant Referees: Robin Goodliffe and Ashley Rowden
Leicester Tigers v Saracens
(Welford Road – Kick-off: 20.00; 20.00 GMT)
Leicester Tigers' five game winning run in Premiership ended last Saturday with their defeat at champions Harlequins.
Tigers have lost only one game in any competition at Welford Road since October 2011: 9-22 to Harlequins on 22 September.
Saracens solitary defeat in their last 10 encounters in all competitions since early December was 16-29 at London Irish on 9 February.
The two clubs drew 9-all when they met at Wembley Stadium in round three, whilst Saracens have won their last three matches at Welford Road in the regular season.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy (captain), 14 Scott Hamilton, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Adam Thompstone, 10 George Ford, 9 Sam Harrison, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Ed Slater, 3 Logovi'i Mulipola, 2 Rob Hawkins, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 Kieran Brookes, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Brett Deacon, 20 Richard Thorpe, 21 Micky Young, 22 Matt Cornwell, 23 Mathew Tait.
Saracens: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 James Short, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Adam Powell, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (captain), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Nick Auterac, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 George Kruis, 20 Justin Melck, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Nils Mordt, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Paul Dix and& Nigel Carrick
TMO: Graham Hughes
Sunday, February 24
London Irish v London Wasps
(Madejski Stadium – Kick-off: 12.00; 12.00 GMT)
London Irish's two game winning run in Premiership ended with their 16-40 defeat at Bath on Saturday.
The Exiles have won their last three contests at Madejski Stadium in all competitions.
London Wasps have won their last five Premiership encounters since their 23-30 reversal at Exeter on 1 December.
Wasps have lost only one of their last five away games in all competitions: 8-34 at Leicester in the Anglo-Welsh Cup on 26 January.
Wasps have won their last two games against London Irish, whilst the last nine fixtures in the Premiership between the two clubs have all been won by the home side on the day.
London Irish: 15 Tom Homer, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Guy Armitage, 12 Shane Geraghty, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Pat Phibbs, 1 Max Lahiff, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Halani Aulika, 4 George Skivington, 5 Bryn Evans (captain), 6 Matt Garvey, 7 Ofisa Treviranus, 8 Chris Hala'ufia.
Replacements: 16 Davy McGregor, 17 Jerry Yanuyanutawa, 18 Leo Halavatau, 19 Kieran Low, 20 Jamie Gibson, 21 Jon Fisher, 22 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 23 Jack Moates.
London Wasps: 15 Hugo Southwell, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Chris Bell, 11 Tom Varndell, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Joe Simpson, 8 Sam Jones, 7 Jonathan Poff, 6 Ashley Johnson, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 James Cannon, 3 Will Taylor, 2 T Rhys Thomas, 1 Zak Taulafo.
Replacements: 16 Tom Lindsay, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Lorenzo Romano, 19 Alex Rae, 20 Matt Everard, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Nick Robinson, 23 Charlie Hayter.
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth
Assistant Referees: Ian Tempest and Andrew Watson
TMO: David Grashoff