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Saints braced for 'massive' clash

Northampton broke Leicester hearts in last season's Aviva Premiership play-offs - and Saints boss Jim Mallinder believes the Tigers will be "hurting" ahead of Saturday's showdown at Franklin's Gardens.

The dramatic 21-20 victory for Northampton, which was secured by a late Tom Wood try, ended Leicester's run of appearing in every Premiership final since 2004.

Northampton marched on to Twickenham, where they beat Saracens in similarly dramatic circumstances to be crowned English champions for the first time, and victory this weekend would guarantee they lead the Premiership heading into Christmas.

"It is going to be massive again," Mallinder said.

"Leicester have had a few sort of ups and downs a little bit this season, but generally they are getting back up there, they are playing well, they have got lots of players back and we know that games against Leicester are good spicy affairs."

While Tigers will arrive in the hotbed of an East Midlands derby following back-to-back European Champions Cup games against French heavyweights Toulon, Saints hardly broke sweat in racking up more than 100 points at Italian side Treviso's expense.

Mallinder, though, does not not believe such contrasting derby build-ups will have any bearing on their fierce rivals' latest meeting.

"Sometimes, it can help you in that you are playing at that level and intensity, but I think all our players are used to it," Mallinder added.

"They play in enough big games over the season, and we are going into it in good shape. We have got a good fit squad.

"What a cracking game it was last time (against Leicester).

"It was so close and could have gone either way, so they will be hurting, but we also remember they've had the better record against us over the past few outings.

"We won the last one, but generally they've done the job on us."

England lock Courtney Lawes, who signed a new Northampton contract this week, said: "It is a local derby, and all the boys know it's going to be ferocious. It's always exciting.

"It is the first time we have played them since last season's semi-final. They will be ready to get some revenge on us, and we have to be ready for that."

Local bragging rights are also up for grabs in the west country on Saturday when Gloucester and Bath clash at Kingsholm.

Last season's corresponding clash - won 18-17 by Bath following a late converted penalty try - proved eventful for all the wrong reasons after Gloucester finished the game with only 11 players.

Scrum-half Tavis Knoyle was sent off following a mass brawl close to full-time, while home prop Sila Puafisi received a red card earlier in the game. Gloucester also had two players sin-binned, and Bath picked up three yellow cards.

Bath's star rugby league recruit Sam Burgess returns to the bench this weekend after making his full debut on the European stage against Montpellier last Friday, with Kyle Eastmond partnering Jonathan Joseph in midfield.

"Since I've arrived (at the club), nearly every Gloucester supporter I've met, the one game they've talked about is Bath," Gloucester rugby director David Humphreys said.

"But we have spoken about it this week as being just another game, it's game 10 of 22 across the course of the season.

"In this league, every game is important and it's a big run for us coming into the Christmas period.

"We've got a little bit of momentum, based on the last three games. We've actually played quite well.

"But Bath is going to be a huge test. They've been outstanding this season, so for us it's another chance for us to measure ourselves against one of the top teams in the country."

Elsewhere on Saturday, Saracens host rock-bottom London Welsh and Harlequins entertain Newcastle, while Sunday's Premiership action sees Wasps - watched by a crowd of more than 28,000 - play their first home game at Coventry's Ricoh Arena, with London Irish providing the opposition.


From Belfast Telegraph