Harlequins and Saints set for final day play-off battle

The final round of the regular Premiership season takes place on Saturday as Harlequins and Northampton Saints vie for a spot in the top-four.

Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints

Rob Baxter has challenged his Exeter Chiefs to show their worth ahead of Saturday’s Premiership encounter with Northampton Saints at Sandy Park.

Having used the past month to rest and rotate his various playing options, Devon’s finest will be at full-strength for this final encounter of the regular season.

Buoyed by the return of a number of key personnel, the Chiefs’ director of rugby says this Round 22 battle will offer the perfect test for his team ahead of next week’s much-anticipated semi-final showdown.

“It’s probably the first time in three or four weeks where we have been able to give the squad some real clarity on what we are expecting of them,” said Baxter. “We are going to pick our best, fit 23 for this game, and we’re expecting to see those players picked for the weekend get ready to play in a Premiership semi-final.

Meanwhile, director of rugby Chris Boyd has made four changes to Northampton Saints’ line-up ahead of this weekend’s vital clash at the Chiefs.

After making his injury return off the bench in Saints’ victory over Worcester Warriors last time out, Piers Francis is fit to start against the Premiership leaders at Sandy Park.

Boyd has also shuffled his pack with Paul Hill, Alex Moon and Lewis Ludlam all selected as the men in Black, Green and Gold look to complete a season’s double over the Chiefs – having won a dramatic December showdown between the sides 31-28 at Franklin’s Gardens.

Saints enter the game on a three-game winning streak in the league, and one more victory at Exeter would guarantee them a return to the Premiership’s semi-finals for the first time since 2015.

Alex Waller skippers the side with Reece Marshall packing down at hooker and England international Hill named at tighthead after impressing off the bench against Worcester.

Moon returns to Northampton’s second-row after shaking off an ankle injury that has kept him out since the beginning of April, and the 22-year-old joins Courtney Lawes in the engine room.

The final change to Saints’ pack sees flanker Ludlam selected on the openside, with Jamie Gibson and number eight Teimana Harrison keeping their places in the back-row.

Dan Biggar, Cobus Reinach and Francis all crossed for superb tries against the Chiefs earlier in the season, and are named again for the trip to Sandy Park with Land Rover Discovery of the Season nominee Rory Hutchinson completing the midfield.

Meanwhile, for the third-straight match full-back Ahsee Tuala and explosive wingers Taqele Naiyaravoro and Tom Collins make up the back three for Saints.

There is also room on the bench for fit-again duo James Fish and David Ribbans, with James Grayson and Alex Mitchell providing half-back cover amongst the replacements.

The teams:

Exeter: 15 Jack Nowell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Nic White, 8 Matt Kvesic, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Jack Yeandle (c), 1 Alec Hepburn Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Sam Hill

Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Tom Collins, 13 Rory Hutchinson, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Lewis Ludlam, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Alex Moon, 3 Paul Hill, 2 Reece Marshall, 1 Alex Waller (c) Replacements: 16 James Fish, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Ben Franks, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 James Grayson, 23 Luther Burrell

Venue: Sandy Park Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: Karl Dickson Assistant referees: Luke Pearce, Gareth Holsgrove TMO: David Rose

Leicester Tigers v Bath

Leicester Tigers will say some fond farewells in the final game of the season at Welford Road on Saturday.

As Tom Youngs returns from suspension to captain Tigers in the Premiership Round 22 fixture against Bath, seven of his team-mates will be making a final appearance in the club’s colours, including Matt Smith, who retires after 228 appearances in 14 seasons in the senior squad to become head coach at the club’s academy.

Graham Kitchener, Mike Fitzgerald and Brendon O’Connor all start in the forward pack for a final time as Tigers players, while Clayton Blommetjies ends his short spell at the club with a starting role on the wing. Valentino Mapapalangi and Leonardo Sarto, who are also leaving the club, are named among the replacements.

With Jonny May and Telusa Veainu ruled out, George Worth comes in at full-back to join Sam Aspland-Robinson and Blommetjies in the back three, with Smith joined by the returning Kyle Eastmond at centre.

George Ford, who this week added the supporters’ Player of the Year Award to the Players’ Player honour, is at fly-half.

Tom Hardwick, one of 10 graduates of the Tigers academy in the matchday squad, is called up to join the replacements.

For Bath, Anthony Watson is set to mark his 100th appearance for the club against Leicester.

Watson starts at full-back, with Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie completing the back three for the final game of the regular season. Max Wright comes in at inside centre and forms a midfield pairing with Jonathan Joseph. Will Chudley and Freddie Burns continue in the half-back pairing.

Beno Obano and Max Lahiff line-up either side of Tom Dunn in the front-row, with Charlie Ewels leading the side from the engine room. After a physical display as a replacement in the victory against Wasps in the last round, Levi Douglas starts alongside Ewels.

Tom Ellis and Sam Underhill take their positions at blindside and openside flanker respectively and Zach Mercer completes the pack at number eight.

Francois Louw makes his return to action, with the South African international named among the replacements for the final round of the Premiership season.

The teams:

Leicester: 15 George Worth, 14 Sam Aspland-Robinson, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Clayton Blommetjies, 10 George Ford , 9 Sam Harrison, 8 Sione Kalamafoni, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Mike Fitzgerald, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Will Spencer, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs (c), 1 Ellis Genge Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Facundo Gigena, 18 Joe Heyes, 19 Harry Wells, 20 Valentino Mapapalangi, 21 Ben White, 22 Tom Hardwick, 23 Leonardo Sarto

Bath: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Max Wright, 11 Ruaridh McConnochie, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Will Chudley, 8 Zach Mercer, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Tom Ellis, 5 Charlie Ewels (c), 4 Levi Douglas, 3 Max Lahiff, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Beno Obano Replacements: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Sam Nixon, 19 Elliott Stooke, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Kahn Fotuali’i, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni

Venue: Welford Road Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys Assistant referees: Ian Tempest, Matthew O’Grady TMO: Sean Davey

Newcastle Falcons v Bristol Bears

Joel Hodgson makes a welcome return after six months out with a broken leg as Newcastle Falcons end their Premiership season at home to Bristol Bears on Saturday.

The fly-half suffered the injury in mid-November and forms part of a side skippered by scrum-half Michael Young, following his Try of the Season contender last time out at Gloucester.

Adam Radwan and Zach Kibirige team up on the wings with Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti both ruled out by injury, while Sam Lockwood returns at loosehead prop and Logovi’i Mulipola slides over to tighthead.

Meanwhile, Bristol will go in search of a Champions Cup spot when Pat Lam’s men visit Kingston Park on Saturday.

Victory over Newcastle in the final round of the Premiership could see the West Country outfit achieve qualification to cap a remarkable first season back in the top-flight.

Head coach Lam makes three changes from the side that drew with Sale Sharks as Luke Daniels and Harry Randall come into the backline.

In the only change in the pack, Samoan international James Lay is selected for his first Premiership start after an impressive string of displays from the replacements bench, while John Afoa is set to make his 100th Premiership appearance.

The teams:

Newcastle: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Johnny Williams, 11 Adam Radwan, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Michael Young (c), 8 Nemani Nagusa, 7 Gary Graham, 6 Callum Chick, 5 Sean Robinson, 4 Calum Green, 3 Logovi’i Mulipola, 2 George McGuigan, 1 Sam Lockwood Replacements: 16 Santiago Socino, 17 Trevor Davison, 18 David Wilson, 19 Evan Olmstead, 20 Jamie Blamire, 21 Sam Stuart, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Josh Matavesi

Bristol: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Piers O’Conor, 12 Siale Piutau (cc), 11 Luke Daniels, 10 Callum Sheedy, 9 Harry Randall, 8 Nick Haining, 7 Dan Thomas, 6 Steve Luatua (cc), 5 Chris Vui, 4 Ed Holmes, 3 John Afoa, 2 Harry Thacker, 1 James Lay Replacements: 16 George Kloska, 17 Jake Woolmore, 18 Lewis Thiede, 19 Jack Lam, 20 George Smith, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Tusi Pisi, 23 Mat Protheroe

Venue: Kingston Park Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: JP Doyle Assistant referees: Hamish Smales, Andrew Jackson TMO: David Grashoff

Sale Sharks v Gloucester

Steve Diamond has named his squad for the final game of  the 2018/19 league campaign against Gloucester at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Byron McGuigan returns after missing four games whilst James Phillips starts meaning he has played in every Premiership game since joining the Sharks.

McGuigan will start on the left wing where he replaces Arron Reed as one of two alterations from Sale’s run-on side which drew 20-20 with Bristol Bears a fortnight ago.

The other change sees James O’Connor coming in for Luke James at inside centre.

Meanwhile, Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann has picked a line-up that shows multiple changes, both in the forwards and in the backs, from the side that started against Newcastle Falcons at Kingsholm a fortnight ago. Tom Savage will skipper the side.

Of note are the returns from injury after an absence of several weeks of Ollie Thorley, who starts on the left wing, and Tom Marshall who is named amongst the replacements. Meanwhile, Matt Banahan will reach a significant milestone as he will make his 200th Premiership appearance.

The sterling work done by the Gloucester Rugby Academy is also reflected, with a number of current members and recent ‘graduates’ named in the matchday 23.

And, with a Premiership semi-final on the horizon next weekend, there is every incentive for the team on duty at Sale to put in a performance and stake a claim for selection in the knock-out game at either Exeter or Saracens.

The teams:

Sale Sharks: 15 Chris Ashton, 14 Denny Solomona, 13 Sam James, 12 James O’Connor, 11 Byron McGuigan, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jono Ross (c), 7 Tom Curry, 6 Ben Curry, 5 James Phillips, 4 Josh Beaumont, 3 WillGriff John, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Ross Harrison Replacements: 16 Curtis Langdon, 17 Valerey Morozov, 18 Joe Jones, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 Josh Strauss, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Luke James, 23 Arron Reed

Gloucester: 15 Charlie Sharples, 14 Tom Seabrook, 13 Henry Purdy, 12 Matt Banahan, 11 Ollie Thorley, 10 Lloyd Evans, 9 Callum Braley, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Lewis Ludlow, 6 Jake Polledri, 5 Gerbrandt Grobler, 4 Tom Savage (c), 3 Gareth Denman; 2 Henry Walker, 1 Kyle Traynor Replacements: 16 Todd Gleave, 17 Alex Seville, 18. Paddy McAllister, 19 Alex Craig, 20 Aaron Hinkley, 21 Ben Vellacott, 22 Dom Coetzer, 23 Tom Marshall

Venue: AJ Bell Stadium Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: Wayne Barnes Assistant referees: Christophe Ridley, Peter Allan TMO: Keith Lewis

Wasps v Harlequins

Joe Launchbury will lead his side out on his 100th Premiership appearance in The Big Sting at Ricoh Arena on Saturday, as Wasps look to sign off the 2018/19 Premiership season in style.

Meanwhile, Wasps fans are set to say farewell to some club legends, as Dai Young’s side chase a place in next season’s Champions Cup, while Quins hunt the fourth and final play-off spot.

Elliot Daly returns from a knee injury to start at outside centre for his final and 193rd appearance in the Black and Gold, while Lima Sopoaga also returns to the starting line-up after the birth of his second child.

Club legend Joe Simpson, fellow centurion Nathan Hughes, Springbok Willie le Roux and Gaby Lovobalavu also start, in what will be their final appearances in a Wasps jersey.

Lock James Gaskell (back) recovers from a knock to start and Zurabi Zhvania (knee) is fit again to be named among the replacements.

Also on the bench is versatile back Rob Miller, who could make his 150th Premiership appearance, while another club centurion in Jake Cooper-Woolley, and Craig Hampson, could feature for their farewell appearances.

Meanwhile, Semi Kunatani gets his first start in the Premiership for Harlequins.

Olympic gold medalist Kunatani, who signed for Harlequins over the summer from Top 14 giants Toulouse, starts at blindside flanker rotating with  Player’s Player of the Season Alex Dombrandt. Co-Captain Chris Robshaw and Jack Clifford complete the back-row triumvirate in a match that could secure Quins a semi-final berth.

Two other changes in the starting team are Rob Buchanan at hooker and Ross Chisholm who returns to the team line-up in place of Charlie Walker on the right wing.

Among the replacements, the team are proud that Harlequins Academy graduate and second-row George Merrick is set to make his 100th appearance for the club.

The teams:

Wasps: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Marcus Watson, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Gaby Lovobalavu, 11 Josh Bassett, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Joe Simpson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Nizaam Carr, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Gaskell, 4 Joe Launchbury (c), 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Tom Cruse, 1 Simon McIntyre Replacements: 16 Tommy Taylor, 17 Zurabi Zhvania, 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Ashley Johnson, 21 Craig Hampson, 22 Rob Miller, 23 Juan de Jongh

Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Ross Chisholm, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Gabriel Ibitoye, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Danny Care, 8 Jack Clifford, 7 Chris Robshaw (cc) 6 Semi Kunatani, 5 James Horwill (cc), 4 Matt Symons, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Rob Buchanan, 1 Joe Marler Replacements: 16 Elia Elia, 17 Lewis Boyce, 18 Will Collier, 19 George Merrick, 20 Alex Dombrandt, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 James Lang, 23 Alofa Alofa

Venue: Ricoh Arena Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: Matthew Carley Assistant referees: Tom Foley, Greg Macdonald TMO: Stuart Terheege

Worcester Warriors v Saracens

Worcester have named six of their departing players in their matchday squad for their Premiership finale against Saracens at Sixways.

Wales’ Grand Slam-winning wing Josh Adams, who will join Cardiff Blues next season, England centre Ben Te’o and former South Africa centre Wynand Olivier will all start against the European champions.

Adams needs one try in his final match to become Warriors all-time leading try-scorer in the Premiership. Adams is currently level on 25 tries with fellow wing Bryce Heem but Heem, who is also leaving Warriors, will miss the Saracens match through suspension.

Olivier, a World Cup winner in 2007, will make his first Premiership appearance of the season and his last in all rugby having announced that he will retire after Saturday’s match. Olivier is to return to South Africa to take up an opportunity in a non-rugby-related business.

Hooker Jack Singleton, who has signed for Saracens for next season, Ulster-bound tighthead prop Gareth Milasinovich and long-serving scrum-half Jonny Arr have all been named among the replacements.

Arr has made 217 first team appearances for Warriors and has played all his rugby in a Worcester shirt having first played for the club’s U7s team 23 years ago. Arr has yet to announce his future plans.

Warriors have made three changes to the side that started at Northampton two weeks ago. Olivier replaces fellow Springbok Francois Venter, Michael Fatialofa starts in the second-row in place of Darren Barry, who is joining Newcastle Falcons, and Ted Hill starts at blindside flanker with Cornell du Preez switching to openside.

Three of the four players who suffered head injuries at Northampton – Perry Humphreys, Nick Schonert and Milasinovich – have all passed Head Injury Assessments.

Fly-half Jamie Shillcock has been named among the replacements and is set to make his first appearance since he suffered an ankle injury in the Challenge Cup match in Pau in December.

Meanwhile, Manu Vunipola will make his first Premiership start for Saracens. The young Saracens Academy fly-half, who will head to the World Rugby U20 Championship with England this summer made his league debut in Round 21 and starts at 10 with Max Malins having not quite recovered from a quad injury.

He forms a half-back partnership with Tom Whiteley, another in Saturday’s 23 to have starred in the Premiership Rugby Shield final win over Newcastle Falcons A.

Matt Gallagher begins at full-back while there are also places for Dom Day, Christian Judge and Ben Earl in the starting XV.

The match could be the last of Marcelo Bosch’s Saracens career after six incredible years at Allianz Park. Fellow Argentine Juan Figallo makes his long-awaited return to competitive action at loosehead prop.

On the bench, there are seven Academy products with three looking to make their Premiership debuts – Billy Walker, Andy Christie and Tom Griffiths.

The teams:

Worcester Warriors: 15 Chris Pennell, 14 Perry Humphreys, 13 Wynand Olivier, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 GJ van Velze (c), 7 Cornell du Preez, 6 Ted Hill, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Nick Schonert, 2 Niall Annett, 1 Ethan Waller Replacements: 16 Jack Singleton, 17 Callum Black, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Andrew Kitchener, 20 Sam Lewis, 21 Jonny Arr, 22 Jamie Shillcock, 23 Tom Howe

Saracens: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 David Strettle, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Alex Lewington, 10 Manu Vunipola, 9 Tom Whiteley, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Calum Clark (c), 5 Dom Day, 4 Nick Isiekwe, 3 Christian Judge, 2 Joe Gray, 1 Juan Figallo Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Hayden Thompson-Stringer, 18 Billy Walker, 19 Joel Kpoku, 20 Andy Christie, 21 Henry Taylor, 22 Tom Griffiths, 23 Rotimi Segun

Venue: Sixways Kick-off: 16:00 BST (15:00 GMT) Referee: Adam Leal Assistant referees: Jack Makepeace, Paul Dix TMO: Trevor Fisher