With five rounds of matches to go in the 'regular season', the competition for play-off positions and the consolation prize of European qualification is intensifying. At the bottom, London Irish are hanging on, but will surely be relegated soon, so the focus this weekend will be on the play-off places.
Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints - Saturday 24th March, Kick-Off @ 1730hrs
This game is being promoted as 'The Big One' in the North-East, as it will be played at St James' Park in front of a record crowd of well over 20,000. The Falcons will wear Newcastle United colours and their shirts will be auctioned off for charity after the game. Newcastle will be strong favourites, sitting as they do in fourth place in the table following an excellent win at Gloucester. Northampton have struggled all season and are currently tenth, with 'technical coaching consultant' Alan Gaffney describing their latest first-half effort against Sale as 'abysmal'!. This week, Saints' star man Courtney Lawes was ruled out for the season with a knee injury, and number 8 Teimana Harrison was suspended. Wales wing George North is also under a cloud following allegations that he refused to play against Sale. Saints' top try-scorers are Australian centre Rob Horne and back-up hooker Mike Haywood.
Newcastle's main try-threat comes from Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva, who has nine so far. As a team, they are enjoying an excellent season, and have become realistic contenders for a play-off place. They will be disappointed with anything less than a win against out-of-sorts Northampton, and will hope to be inspired by the atmosphere at St James' Park.
Bath v Exeter Chiefs - Friday 23 March, Kick-Off @ 1945hrs
Champions and league leaders Exeter will be looking to follow up their win over Saracens in the last round with another strong performance here.
Bath are only five points behind Newcastle in the final play-off place but currently sit in seventh place. They hope to welcome back Rhys Priestland, Matt Garvey and Tom Dunn, but their main try threat, in the absence of injured Semesa Rokoduguni, will come from winger Matt Banahan. Bath come into this match on the back of a disappointing defeat at Harlequins.
The Chiefs will have prolific forwards Sam Simmonds and Don Armand back from England duty and will take confidence from the six-try hammering they administered to Bath in December. Exeter's main try-scoring threat may come from former Bath winger Olly Woodburn. The Chiefs will be favourites, but Bath's desperate situation could inspire them to victory.
Leicester Tigers v Wasps - Sunday 25 March, Kick-Off @ 1500hrs
Both sides have momentum on their side, with Wasps having three wins and a draw in their last four Premiership matches, and the Tigers having earned three successive victories. Wasps are in second place, seven points behind leaders Exeter and seven points ahead of fifth-placed Leicester.
Wasps will welcome back James Haskell, Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury from England duty, but they still have a number of players unavailable due to long-term injuries. Nonetheless, Danny Cipriani is fit again, and Christian Wade can cause problems for any team on his day.
For Leicester, top try scorer Jonny May, Dan Cole and George Ford should return from international duty. Importantly, the often-injured Manu Tuilagi is also available. Tigers will have most of a packed Welford Road behind them, and with Wasps decimated by injuries, they will rarely have a better chance of ending their five-game losing streak against their Coventry-based rivals.
Remaining Fixtures of Round 18
Saturday 24th March, Kick-Off @ 1500hrs
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