Tom Vickers’ Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints preview

WINNING THE BATTLE- the Saints pack impressed at Sandy Park last January (Picture: Linda Dawson)
WINNING THE BATTLE- the Saints pack impressed at Sandy Park last January (Picture: Linda Dawson)

Aviva Premiership games don’t come much tougher than a trip to Exeter on a wet and windy night during the Six Nations.

But that’s exactly what’s in store for Saints this weekend as they aim to make it nine wins in succession in all competitions.

It is a pivotal weekend for Jim Mallinder’s men, who are bidding to stay in touch with Saracens at the summit.

The Allianz Park outfit should claim victory at home to London Irish, while the other sides with realistic top-four chances, Leicester, Bath and Harlequins, will also be expected to prevail.

That leaves Saints, who have it all on to come away from Sandy Park with a successful outcome.

Exeter are missing just one player – Jack Nowell – to England duty, and will be expected to cook up a storm in blustery conditions.

Saints, shorn of eight internationals, including injured duo Alex Corbisiero and Ben Foden, will need to grit their teeth and show just why they are being heavily tipped for the title this season.

There has been plenty of talk about increased squad depth from fans, players and coaches – and the starting 15 shows why.

Despite missing Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, the Saints forwards still look capable of packing a mighty punch.

It was an area in which dominance was achieved at Sandy Park in the Premiership meeting last January, with Saints simply too strong for their hosts in the second half.

Soane Tonga’uiha and GJ van Velze were the beneficiaries of irresistible forward surges as the Chiefs were beaten up by the opposition pack, falling to a 30-19 defeat.

And more of the same will be needed tomorrow in a mud and thunder fixture that will test those much vaunted Saints resources.

But the biggest challenges can bring the most extreme feelings of elation, and if Saints can secure another win at Sandy Park, they will deserve a huge pat on the back and a couple of beers.

Because with games against Worcester, Newcastle and Gloucester coming up before the LV= Cup semi-final showdown against Sarries, they would be marching towards a top-two finish.

That is the minimum requirement from a league campaign that has so far yielded 10 wins from 12 games.

It is a fine record, especially when you consider the other two matches have been a draw at Leicester and a controversial late defeat at Gloucester.

Saints have shown a penchant for negotiating tricky hurdles this season, and they will certainly need to do so again on Saturday night.