England’s international players will make a mass return to domestic action this weekend following the rigours of a punishing NatWest 6 Nations campaign.
Only four of the England match-day 23 involved against Ireland at Twickenham last Saturday are absent when the Aviva Premiership takes centre stage after a three-week break.
Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell and George Kruis are all injured, while England captain Dylan Hartley misses Northampton’s clash against Newcastle at St James’ Park on Saturday because of illness.
Seventeen players on Six Nations duty last weekend start for their clubs, with two others – props Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler – among the substitutes for Saracens and Harlequins respectively.
While much focus will be on the England contingent, attention also surrounds Wales wing George North’s appearance for Northampton.
He has been named to start against the Falcons following the internal disciplinary action taken by the Saints against him for missing a training session earlier this month.
A crowd approaching 30,000 is likely for play-off hopefuls Newcastle’s appearance at the home of Newcastle United.
“I have been there for Newcastle United games, Rugby World Cup and Rugby league Magic Weekend, and it’s just an incredible venue,” Falcons Rugby director Dean Richards said.
“I am sure our guys will show a great focus and really rise to the challenge.
“They’ve done it many times already this season, and it is an enormously exciting time to be involved with the club right now.”
Saracens are also on different territory, with a 57,000 sell-out confirmed for a London Stadium appointment with Harlequins as the European champions start with England trio Richard Wigglesworth, Jamie George and Maro Itoje.
Saracens Rugby director Mark McCall said: “It feels as though the first seven months of the season has had its challenges.
“It’s been tough and we have had a few things to contend with, but we’ve got to the home straight and we are in pretty good shape, as it were. It is time now to get excited about what is ahead.”
Premiership relegation favourites London Irish will go into battle against Madejski Stadium visitors Gloucester on Saturday under their new coaching team of Declan Kidney and Les Kiss, and just 48 hours after Rugby director Nick Kennedy departed the club.
And Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann is wary as his play-off hopefuls tackle a team currently 12 points adrift of 11th-placed Worcester – the Warriors visit Sale Sharks on Saturday – with just five league games left.
“Obviously I think they will be a side who will be hungry and desperate,” Ackermann said. “They’ve had a change in coaching staff, and sometimes that can bring new energy and excitement. It’s going to be a big test for us.”
Sunday’s Premiership action, meanwhile, sees Leicester hoping to keep themselves in the play-off mix when they tackle Wasps at Welford Road.
Wales wing George North will return to domestic action when he lines up for Northampton against Newcastle on Saturday.
Saints announced on Tuesday that North had been “disciplined internally” after missing a training session ahead of an Aviva Premiership appointment with Sale Sharks on March 3.
He was absent from the Sale match, after which Saints’ interim boss Alan Gaffney suggested the 25-year-old had not wanted to play for the club.
North, who started Wales’ last two NatWest 6 Nations games against Italy and France, returned to club training on Monday.
North’s contract at Northampton expires at the end of this season, and he will join one of the four Welsh regional teams in the summer on a national dual contract.
Northampton have five league games left, starting at St James’ Park this weekend, with 73 times-capped North among five changes in the starting XV.
England captain Dylan Hartley, meanwhile, does not feature, with Saints saying he is sidelined through illness after returning from international duty.
"The players have had a week off so they've come back refreshed and ready to go."— Northampton Saints (@SaintsRugby) March 23, 2018
Alan Dickens on the trip to Newcastle and the absence of skipper Dylan Hartley pic.twitter.com/tfn31HAbOE
Northampton have also announced that fly-half Stephen Myler will leave the club at the end of this season.
Goalkicker Myler, 33, joined Saints in 2006 after switching codes from Rugby league. He won a 15-a-side England cap against Argentina seven years later.
He has made more than 300 first-team appearances for Saints, and was instrumental in the club winning domestic and European honours in 2014. He has amassed more than 1,600 Premiership points.
“I am extremely proud to have spent almost 12 seasons at Franklin’s Gardens, and I hope I’ve been able to repay the club for the opportunity they gave me and the faith they showed in me by playing as many games as I have,” Myler said, in a statement released by the club.
“I will leave with memories that will stay with me forever, having played and enjoyed success in many key games in the club’s history.
“But the time has come for me to move on. I am grateful for what has been, but I’m ready and looking forward to what my future holds.”
Two red cards, five tries and a ferocious fight between two heavyweights – this was UAE club rugby at its finest.
Dubai Exiles emerged from the Dragons’ lair having slain Jebel Ali 31-20 to set up an encounter with Bahrain in next week’s West Asia Cup final after the two teams considered the underdog triumphed in Friday’s semi-finals.
Both teams thundered into each other from the off at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence with the brute force on both teams making for a feisty game which boiled over on several occasions, including in the closing minutes when Exiles’ UAE international Jaen Botes and Dragons’ flying Fijian Saki Naisau were red carded following a violent altercation.
Amid a second half where hotheads ruled the day, Durandt Gerber’s ice cold temperament and near faultless goal-kicking saw Exiles prevail and reach the final, having finished fourth in the West Asia Premiership, behind champions Dragons.
Exiles are lauded for their impressive physicality and it was on display when they opened the scoring against the run of play after four minutes. Dragons had started brightly but conceded a penalty and after Gerber kicked for the corner, former Dragons hooker Gio Fourie crashed over against his old side following the lineout drive.
Dragons roared right back and thought they were level three minutes later when a delightfully delayed Naisau pass sent Matt Richards over, but the try was called back for a forward pass.
It mattered little as Dragons did regain parity shortly after when James Love’s beautiful reverse pass sent Niko Volavola into space. The Fijian is a devastating talent and finished off in style, Love tying the scores.
Gerber and Love exchanged penalties as little ground was given by either side. Jacques Benade’s men did edge ahead at the break thanks to their gigantic pack. Another kick to the corner, another lineout drive. Botes this time the grateful recipient at the back as he powered over as Exiles led 17-10.
He went from saint to sinner just four minutes after the restart though when he was sent to the sin bin for a tip tackle. The raucous home crowd sensed a chance to get back in the game and they duly were, just a minute later.
Exiles initially thought they had escaped the danger when they stole a lineout and cleared their lines. But Volavola kicked and retrieved his own punt to send Richards scurrying through to score against his old club, with Love again leveling things up.
Despite being a man down, Exiles dug deep and showed their mettle when they took the lead for a third time with Botes in the bin. This time it was their excellent running rugby which yielded a score.
The excellent Justin Walsh, Rory Arnold, James Crossley and Matt Mills all made ground as the visitors meandered into Dragons’ territory. And just as the hosts thought they had stemmed the tide, Fourie found a gap and ploughed over for his second score.
Gerber missed a difficult conversion and then a penalty but potted his next shot at goal as errors began to creep into Dragons’ game. The gap was eight but Love bisected the uprights to leave his side trailing at 25-20 with 10 minutes remaining.
Then came the turning point. A swinging arm from a Dragons player on an Exiles opponent went unnoticed by the referee. A fired up Botes took matters into his own hands and pushed a player in blue to the ground, before being hit by a Naisau punch.
The Fijian was sent off while Botes followed after being shown a second yellow for retaliation.
Both sets of supporters were incensed but amid all the hostility, Gerber remained the coolest player on the pitch – keeping his nerve to add two more penalties as Exiles kept Dragons at bay, firing themselves into next week’s final, with a treble of West Asia Cup, UAE Premiership and Dubai Sevens very much in their thoughts.
It is now three wins in a row over Dragons for Exiles following triumph at the Sevens in December, a 35-15 WAP win earlier this year and now this result.
And they are a side who bring the best out of Exiles, said their head coach Benade.
“Dragons always bring the best out of us. They were favourites in the Sevens final and the two recent games in the league and today,” said the South African.
“The boys always want to play rugby. It’s the same against Quins. It doesn’t matter what players teams have out on the field, everyone will lift their games.
“They have a lot of good players, individual players who can create something from nothing and they’re playing a good brand of rugby, so to come here and win again, the boys were outstanding.”
Of the game, he added: “It had everything. Both teams wanted to win and both went out there from the start and got very physical. It’s a local derby and it’s a game, whether a friendly, league, semi-final or final, where both teams will always want to win.”
Dragons skipper Ross Samson was one of many players from both teams left wounded following a thrillingly physical encounter and the Scotsman had little complaint with the result.
“We made too many mistakes and they’re a quality team,” said the Dragons’ scrum-half.
“They’ve played better the last two times they’ve played us so we don’t have any issues getting beat by a better team on the day.
“We said before the game that if they get penalties they’ll kick to the corner and drive from the lineout and they did that and you can’t win a game if you keep giving penalties away. No gripes, get the feet up now and time for the off-season.”
As Exiles were edging home against Dragons, Bahrain turned over Premiership runners-up Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the UAE capital, winning by a similarly narrow margin of 26-21.