There are three games in the Gallagher Premiership on Friday as teams prepare for a hectic period that includes midweek matches.
Round 15 gets off to a cracking start as third-placed Sale face leaders Exeter Chiefs at the AJ Bell Stadium (6pm). The Sharks’ three-game winning streak was ended by Harlequins last weekend while Exeter’s win over Leicester extended their lead at the summit to eight points.
Fellow title contenders Bristol and Wasps are also in action, the Bears taking on Gloucester at Kingsholm while Wasps play Worcester at the Ricoh Arena (both 7.45pm).
Sale failed to get off the bus at the Stoop as they fell to a disappointing 16-10 defeat.
The Sharks were masters of their own downfall as they struggled to adapt to the new interpretations of the breakdown laws, with eight of the 18 penalties they conceded coming at the ruck.
Steve Diamond will have been focusing on that area this week ahead of the visit of an Exeter side who are capable of dominating sides up front.
Slowing down ruck ball is key when up against the Chiefs’ ferocious pack but they will punish any indiscipline, as exemplified by Luke Cowan-Dickie’s quick tap penalties against Leicester which resulted in two tries.
Sale director of rugby Diamond admitted his side “didn’t fire a shot” against Quins and he will be looking for a lot more in attack against the league leaders.
All eyes were on new signing Manu Tuilagi at the Stoop but he was a peripheral figure. The England centre should have been crashing down Marcus Smith’s channel but instead was limited to just six carries for 19 metres.
Tuilagi switches to inside centre this week and will hope for a more assured display from the Sale half-backs, in particular Robert du Preez who had a shocker at Quins. A repeat performance against Exeter and they won’t even have the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Sale have not lost a Premiership home game since the opening round of this season but they did suffer a 22-20 defeat against Exeter at the AJ Bell Stadium during the Champions Cup pool stages in December.
The Chiefs have won on their last three visits to Sale but the Sharks will take heart from their impressive 22-19 victory at Sandy Park in January, where all of their points came in the first half.
“It’s a big challenge this week,” Sale defence coach Mike Forshaw told Sky Sports.
“We kind of know the DNA of Exeter pretty well. We played them twice in Europe and had a great result down at their place where we executed our game-plan really well and we’ll have to do that again this week.
“I watched their game at the weekend and they just suffocate teams. Leicester were in that game for a long time and the score probably doesn’t reflect the game.
“Once they get in your 22, whatever kind of defence you have it’s really tough because they’re very well drilled in that tight area of the pick and go. They become unstoppable when they get five metres out.”
Sale Sharks: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Byron McGuigan, 13 Sam James, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Rob du Preez, 9 Faf de Klerk; 1 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 3 Will-Griff John, 4 Jean-Luc du Preez, 5 Lood de Jager, 6 Jono Ross (c) 7 Tom Curry, 8 Daniel du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Curtis Langdon, 17 Ross Harrison, 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 19 James Phillips, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Will Cliff, 22 AJ MacGinty, 23 Denny Solomona.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Olly Woodburn,
10 Joe Simmonds (c), 9 Jack Maunder; 1 Ben Moon, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Jonny Gray, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 8 Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Billy Keast, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Tom Hendrickson.
There were plenty of tired bodies towards the end of last weekend’s games and it is Wasps who have the biggest disadvantage heading into round 15.
Lee Blackett’s side lay down a marker with an impressive victory at Franklin’s Gardens but have just five days to recover ahead of their home game with Worcester.
To make matters worse, Wasps and Sale then face a four-day turnarounds before their meeting at the Ricoh Arena on Tuesday.
Worcester will be grateful for the extra day’s rest after they were forced to play with 14 men for 62 minutes against Gloucester following Melani Nanai’s dismissal.
Nanai is suspended for the trip to Coventy while Malakai Fekitoa is also banned after picking up his third yellow card of the season for foul play.
Worcester look to youth
Worcester take on Harlequins on Wednesday followed by a trip to Exeter four days later, so director of rugby Alan Solomons has heavily rotated his squad for Wasps.
Solomons switched his entire starting XV and the match-day squad includes 14 players who have either graduated from the Warriors academy or are currently on the programme.
Scrum-half Gareth Simpson and lock James Scott, who recently graduated to the senior squad at Sixways, make their Premiership debuts while academy wing Noah Heward will have his first taste of senior rugby.
Wasps hand first starts to scrum-half Ben Vellacott and centre Ryan Mills after they came off the bench to make their debuts against Northampton.
Form lines favour Wasps
Wasps’ win over Northampton was their fourth successive victory, their best run in the Premiership since 2017.
That is in stark contrast to Worcester, who have now slipped to seven straight league defeats, their worst sequence since 2017.
The Warriors have lost 11 games in a row against Wasps, their last win coming at Sixways in March 2013, while they have been beaten on all six previous visits to the Ricoh Arena.
Wasps: 15 Rob Miller, 14 Paolo Odogwu, 13 Michael Le Bourgeois, 12 Ryan Mills, 11 Marcus Watson, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Ben Vellacott; 1 Simon McIntyre, 2 Tom Cruse, 3 Biyi Alo, 4 Tim Cardall, 5 James Gaskell (c), 6 Ben Morris, 7 Gabriel Oghre, 8 Tom Willis.
Replacements: 16 Alfie Barbeary, 17 Tom West, 18 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 19 Theo Vukasinovic, 20 Sione Vailanu, 21 Sam Wolstenholme, 22 Jacob Umaga, 23 Matteo Minozzi.
Worcester Warriors: 15 Chris Pennell, 14 Noah Heward, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Will Butler (c), 11 Nick David, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Gareth Simpson; 1 Callum Black, 2 Beck Cutting, 3 Richard Palframan, 4 James Scott, 5 Andrew Kitchener, 6 GJ van Velze, 7 Tom Dodd, 8 Cornell du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Isaac Miller, 17 Lewis Holsey, 18 Joe Morris, 19 Justin Clegg, 20 Caleb Montgomery, 21 Jono Kitto, 22 Jamie Shillcock, 23 Oli Morris.
Skivington stops the rot
Gloucester’s 44-15 victory at Sixways was a great start for new head coach George Skivington as it ended a run of six successive defeats in all competitions.
That includes back-to-back defeats at Kingsholm – the Cherry and Whites’ last home win in the Premiership was against Bath on January 4.
Bristol, meanwhile, have won their last two away games at Northampton and Bath. While the Bears have won four successive games against Gloucester in all competitions, all of those matches were played at Ashton Gate.
You have to go back to March 2006 for Bristol’s last victory at Kingsholm when a 77th-minute try from Brian Lima clinched a 20-15 success.
Bristol ‘a different proposition’
Gloucester ran in six tries against 14-man but expect a much sterner test against a Bristol side which kept Saracens tryless.
The Bears rode their luck at times against the defending champions, who failed to turn dominance into points, and snatched victory at the death thanks to a 76th-minute late penalty try.
“They were really impressive at the weekend,” said Gloucester scrum-half Joe Simpson.
“We know that Bristol are going to be a completely different proposition. It’s going to be an interesting match and probably a good game to work out really where we are as a team.”
Gloucester: 15 Louis Rees-Zammit, 14 Ollie Thorley, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Joe Simpson; 1 Val Rapava-Ruskin, 2 Jack Singleton, 3 Fraser Balmain, 4 Ed Slater, 5 Matt Garvey, 6 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Lewis Ludlow (c), 8 Jake Polledri.
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Logovi’I Mulipola, 18 Jack Stanley, 19 Danny Drake, 20 Jack Clement, 21 Stephen Varney, 22 Tom Seabrook, 23 Charlie Sharples.
Bristol Bears: 15 Max Malins, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Semi Radradra, 12 Siale Piutau, 11 Henry Purdy, 10 Callum Sheedy, 9 Andy Uren; 1 Jake Woolmore, 2 Harry Thacker, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Joe Joyce, 5 Chris Vui, 6 Steven Luatua (c), 7 Ben Earl, 8 Nathan Hughes.
Replacements: 16 Will Capon, 17 Yann Thomas, 18 Max Lahiff, 19 Ed Holmes, 20 Dan Thomas, 21 Harry Randall, 22 Tiff Eden, 23 Luke Morahan.