London Irish face tough test against hungry Northampton
London Irish's hopes of breaking their Aviva Premiership points duck on Saturday could flounder against a Northampton team eager to rediscover its try-scoring prowess.
Although Saints currently hold a top-five Premiership place and are challenging for a European Champions Cup quarter-finals spot, the tries have dried up.
They have claimed just one touchdown across their last four games in all competitions - a Luther Burrell try against Bath three weeks ago - but they will arrive at the Madejski Stadium to face a side reeling from six successive Premiership defeats and currently propping up the table.
"We are working on scoring tries, and we need to improve in that area," Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder said.
"We need the foundations in place, and we are working on that, especially with the youngsters in the front-row. We need to improve, and I think we will do that as we go through the season."
While Irish posted successive recent home wins in the European Challenge Cup, they have lost six games on the bounce against Northampton in all competitions, which suggests another tough afternoon could lie ahead.
Sale Sharks have drawn something of a festive season short straw, facing a 470-mile round-trip to Exeter, where they will face a Chiefs team beaten just once at home since September last year.
It is also Exeter's first Sandy Park fixture since their memorable Champions Cup victory over Clermont Auvergne a fortnight ago, and Sale boss Steve Diamond has huge respect for his Chiefs counterpart Rob Baxter.
"He has done a marvellous job down there," Diamond said.
"He has recruited well, they've got a vibrant youth system and they are doing really well. He is a very good coach, and cares a lot about Exeter, so I can relate a lot to him.
"We are looking forward to it. What we've got to do is be highly-competitive. We know what a formidable forward pack they've got, and they have got some great players.
"We have got to go down there and be abrasive, otherwise we will be at the end of a hiding, so we've got to travel down and put on a performance. We should have won our last two away games in the Premiership, and we want to put that right."
In-form Leicester Tigers, who ar e currently unbeaten from four starts in their Champions Cup group, face a Newcastle side that showed some impressive signs against Challenge Cup rivals Connacht last weekend.
Dean Richards' side are 11th in the table and only have two points so far this season, but the Newcastle rugby director believes they have been steadily improving ahead of their trip to Welford Road.
"During the build-up (to Connacht), we talked about our discipline and that being the key to us winning," he said.
"We conceded a lot of penalties during the opening game of the season, and that followed us for a number of weeks.
"Now, we are on a more even keel, we have sorted ourselves out on that and we are more competitive as a result. In some respects, it (Connacht) was our best performance of the year.
"I think we are getting better every week, and the fact we are now creating and finishing opportunities speaks volumes for the style of play. We just have to do it more consistently."
Sunday's Premiership action, meanwhile, sees unbeaten league leaders Saracens tackle Wasps in a mouth-watering Ricoh Arena clash, while Bath take on Worcester at the Recreation Ground and Harlequins head to Twickenham for their annual Big Game, with Gloucester the visitors.