Venue: Franklin’s Gardens
Referee: Dave Pearson
Third in the table and unbeaten in their last three matches in all competitions, Northampton are in good form. Chris Ashton returns to the side on the right wing, whilst George Pisi continues at outside centre after impressing against Bath and Newcastle. Paul Doran-Jones starts ahead of Brian Mujati, with Samu Manoa in the second row and Tom Wood at openside flanker either side of Phil Dowson and Roger Wilson. Noah Cato makes a first start for three months after injury, whilst Ryan Lamb continues at fly-half.
After scraping a win away at one of the toughest venues in the league at Sandy Park, Quins are on the road again up to the Midlands. Rory Clegg continues in the number 10 shirt with Nick Evans still injured, and he proved the match-winner last weekend despite missing 5 kicks with the boot. Tom Williams continues on the right wing, with Chris Brooker starting ahead of potential England EPS member Joe Gray. Youngster Luke Wallace is on the openside.
What to expect:
Given Northampton’s use of the chip kick over the last few weeks, if Harlequins have nto worked on their defensive sweeping then they will be in trouble. Ryan Lamb seems to have developed a chip kick addiction, and it’s working, but Quins are smart so expect Danny Care to be roaming around the back of the defensive line. Northampton will look for the edge in the scrum, whilst Quins should dominate the lineout under George Robson’s watch. Luke Wallace could make a name for himself at the breakdown.
Head to Head: Ben Foden & Mike Brown
No one used the absence of English stars at the Rugby World Cup to greater effect than Mike Brown. His form all season has been of a higher level than we’ve seen him produce over the last few seasons, especially with regards to his finishing and defence. Excelling against Toulouse in France showed that he has the stomach for the big occasion too. But people seem to have forgotten than Ben Foden was one of England’s best performers at the Rugby World Cup, and more importantly has continued to play well for Northampton since his return. Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell will be watching this audition for the 15 shirt with both anticipation and unease.
Ones to Watch: Tom Wood & Chris Robshaw
Another head to head, Wood & Robshaw have both been touted since Lewis Moody’s retirement as the men to lead England forward to 2015. Both impressive athletes, their physicality is an example to follow for all players. Wood is probably the underdog in this race right now, but if can overcome Robshaw at the breakdown then it will be hard to dismiss his case. On the other hand, if Robshaw comes out of this unscathed and on top, then expect him to travel to the Six Nations launch on January 25th alongside Lancaster.
The way Northampton dispatched Bath in the first half on Christmas Eve, and the fact that they could have scored six tries against Newcastle last weekend, shows how hot they are running. However to beat Harlequins, the defence has to be brutal and consistent (see Saracens for a reference). Harlequins will miss Nick Evans deeply. Hard to call, but home advantage could swing it. Northampton by 6.
by Ben Coles