Preview: Saracens v Northampton

Date published: April 11 2014

The Premiership's top two face off in a trial run ahead of the upcoming playoffs, as Saracens host Northampton Saints.

The Premiership's top two face off in a trial run ahead of the upcoming playoffs, as Saracens host Northampton Saints on Sunday.

Go back to last year and in the Premiership semi-final Northampton shocked everybody by handing Saracens their first ever defeat at Allianz Park.

The final ended in acrimony with Dylan Hartley's red card but the recovery has been swift. Importing George North, Salesi Ma'afu, Sam Dickinson and Kahn Fotuali'i has paid dividends and so Saints find themselves here again – fighting at the top of the league and dreaming of greater success.

Yet they arrive in Barnet in a slump, not including the Challenge Cup quarter-final win over Sale.

Losing the LV=Cup Final to Exeter was followed up by losing in the Premiership to first Sale and then Leicester at home.

It's an unhelpful run for Northampton as they reintegrate their internationals back into the fold – except there's no time to waste.

Winners of the Challenge Cup and LV=Cup in recent years, Northampton are yet to make that breakthrough to winning major trophies.

With a squad including North, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Hartley and Luther Burrell, now is the time it should be happening. Winning at Saracens will put them back on track.

Twelve changes have been made to the starting line-up from the team which won the quarter-final at Sale just over a week ago, with significant returnees including fly half Stephen Myler and number eight Samu Manoa, who returns to the team after helping the USA win their back-to-back play-offs with Uruguay to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015.

Ben Foden, Lee Dickson and Ross McMillan are the three who retain their places after the AJ Bell Stadium success.

Table-topping Saracens are on a mission of their own this season, although the obvious question is how much did last week's hair-raising win over Ulster in Belfast take out of them.

The only team in the last eight to pick up an away win may have had the benefit of a numerical advantage for 75 minutes, but they were playing at Ulster at Ravenhill – there are 30 players on the home team anyway.

It was a performance of great bravery and spirit from Mark McCall's squad, especially when holding on at the death, that underlined how Saracens are not just your average rugby club, both on the field and off the field.

There is of course a price for such a mammoth win, which sees Alex Goode and Duncan Taylor out of this weekend's game and number Ernst Joubert out for the rest of the season following knee surgery.

Still, Saracens have all their key cogs whirring. Owen Farrell deserves greater praise for his performances this season than perhaps has been sent his way. The return of barnstorming Billy Vunipola is a godsend.

Steve Borthwick has a score to settle and a second Premiership title would be a fine caveat to his career as it draws to a close.

Mark McCall makes three changes to the starting back-line that beat Ulster. In come Chris Wyles for Goode at full-back, Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch for Taylor and Saracens double-centurion Neil de Kock for Richard Wigglesworth at half-back.

David Strettle and Chris Ashton start on the wings, with Brad Barritt partnering Bosch in the centres and Owen Farrell starting at fly-half.

In the pack, Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and James Johnston make up the Saracens front row, whilst Borthwick captains the side from lock. The Saracens skipper will break the record for all time Premiership appearances at the weekend, making his 263rd appearance in the English top flight. He is joined by Mouritz Botha in the second row.

In the back row, Kelly Brown returns to the starting line-up at openside flanker, as does Jackson Wray. Vunipola starts at number eight.

Win on Sunday and Saracens can afford to rest key stars over the next few weeks knowing the a home Premiership semi-final is secure. That's a luxury any team would wish for.

Form: The Saints have hosted the Aviva Premiership league leaders three times – once in the league and twice in the LV= Cup – and taken the spoils on each occasion. They also won on their last visit to Allianz Park – a 27-13 victory in last season's Aviva Premiership semi-final – but their recent form is not so impressive. Having slipped to successive league defeats, Northampton are seeking to prevent three on the bounce for the first time since November 2012. Saracens have slipped to defeat just once in their last 12 Aviva Premiership encounters – a 22-13 defeat at home to London Irish in round 13. They are one of only three sides to have lost just once at home this season, in good company with last year's finalists Northampton and Leicester Tigers. Sarries are all but guaranteed a home semi-final as they seek a first title since 2011

The teams:

For Saracens: 15 Chris Wyles, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Eoin Sheriff, 20 Jacques Burger, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Tim Streather

For Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Ross McMillan, 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Ethan Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Sam Dickinson, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Kahn Fotuali'i, 22 Will Hooley, 23 James Wilson

Date: Sunday, April 13
Venue: Allianz Park, Barnet
Kickoff: 14:00 (local, 13:00 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce
Assistant Referees: Peter Huckle, Andy Watson
TMO: Rowan Kitt