Preview: Northampton v Saracens

Date published: April 24 2015

First plays second in the Premiership on Saturday with only three games to go when Northampton host Saracens at stadiummk.

Northampton's hammering at the hands of Clermont Auvergne was so devastating that they have to respond with victory this weekend.

Last season’s champions need to rediscover that spring in their step sooner rather than later if they are to win back-to-back titles – something no one has done since Leicester in 2010.

Travelling to Exeter was always going to be an unforgiving task but after a week to lick their wounds and refocus, Saints will be bursting to show their true colours.

Having to do that against Saracens isn’t easy, who will have their own point to prove after losing the Champions Cup semi-final arm-wrestle to, again, Clermont.

This fixture has an extra bit of bite to it as well after last year’s Premiership final, when Northampton triumphed in extra-time.

Saracens won’t have forgotten the hurt they suffered because of that and with Owen Farrell back fit they are in a good position to challenge for the English title once again.

Winning on Northampton’s turf would send a huge psychological message to their potential opponents in this year’s final, but it also matters if Saracens want to be at home when we get to the last four given they are tied on points with Bath.

All of those subplots will be put to one side though by kick-off, as England’s best two sides and two monstrous packs go toe to toe.

The Saints will host Saracens at stadiummk in front of what is anticipated to be a new attendance record crowd for the Rugby World Cup venue, breaking the 27,000 mark that watched MK Dons beat Manchester United last August.

There are a handful of changes to the Saints’ starting line-up, with Salesi Ma’afu and Courtney Lawes returning to the pack and Ahsee Tuala coming in at full-back.

Saturday could also be a momentous occasion for scrum-half Lee Dickson, who will become a double Saints centurion should he see action off the bench.

Hooker Schalk Brits makes his first start for the club since recovering from a knee injury. The South African comes into the side with in-form hooker Jamie George reverting to the bench as Mark McCall rotates his front-row options.

James Johnston also starts with England prop Mako Vunipola continuing at loosehead in the Saracens front-row. At lock, after recently putting pen to paper on long-term contract extensions, Maro Itoje and George Kruis partner each other in the heart of the Saracens engine room.

Ernst Joubert comes into the side to wear the number six jersey, and he is joined by openside flanker Kelly Brown and number eight Billy Vunipola in the Saracens back-row.

At half-back, Neil de Kock will be making his third appearance at stadiummk after playing for Saracens in Milton Keynes in 2008 and 2012, and starts alongside Charlie Hodgson in the halves.

In the week that he extended his stay with the club, Brad Barritt continues to skipper the side at centre alongside Marcelo Bosch.

David Strettle starts on the right wing and will be looking to add to his 13 tries scored in the 2014/15 season. Chris Wyles continues on the left wing with Alex Goode named at full-back.

Form: Northampton have played four previous matches at stadiummk winning the first two, against Ulster and Perpignan in the European Cup in 2011, but losing the last two in 2012 against Munster in the European Cup and Saracens in Aviva Premiership Rugby.

Saracens have won their last four Aviva Premiership Rugby encounters since tripping up 14-10 at Sale Sharks in round 15 but have won only one of their last five fixtures with the Saints in the league.

The teams:

Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Calum Clark, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Sam Dickinson, 20 Jon Fisher, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Tom Stephenson, 23 James Wilson.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 David Strettle, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Ernst Joubert, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 George Kruis, 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.

Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Kieran Longbottom, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Chris Ashton.

Date: Saturday, April 25
Venue: stadiummk, Milton Keynes
Kick-off: 15:15 local (14:15 GMT)
Referee: Greg Garner
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle, Andrew Jackson
TMO: Rowan Kitt