Tom Vickers' Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers preview
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers (Aviva Premiership - round 18)
Date and kick-off time: Saturday, March 25, 2017, 3pm
Venue: Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
Saints: Tuala; Foden, Tuitavake, Mallinder, North; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes; Lawes, Day; Wood (c), Clark, Picamoles.
Replacements: Haywood, E Waller, Hill, Gibson, Harrison, Dickson, Burrell, K Pisi.
Leicester Tigers: Veainu; Thompstone, Tait, Mermoz, Pietersen; Burns, B Youngs; Genge, T Youngs (c), Cole; Barrow, Kitchener; Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Hamilton.
Replacements: McGuigan, Rizzo, Cilliers, M Williams, McCaffrey, White, O Williams, Roberts.
Referee: Greg Garner
Most recent meeting: Saturday, January 28, 2017: Leicester Tigers 27 Saints 20 (Anglo-Welsh Cup)
Tom’s preview: No extra incentive is needed when it comes to derby day.
But Saints and Tigers know it is not just bragging rights on the line this weekend.
Premiership hopes can be enhanced or dampened in the space of this 80 minutes.
Because just three points separate Jim Mallinder’s men from their rivals up the road, who currently sit one place higher in fifth.
But both Saints and Tigers will have their sights set on the top four this weekend.
The team currently occupying the final play-off spot, Bath, have to travel to champions Saracens on Sunday.
And that leaves the door open for one east midlands side to walk through on Saturday.
Saints may need a bonus-point win to move up to fourth, but even drawing level on points with Bath, who possess a better points difference, would be a good sign at this stage of the season.
It hasn’t been the easiest campaign at Franklin’s Gardens, but there is finally some light appearing at the end of the tunnel.
That has been provided by a superb bonus-point success at Sale Sharks last time out and by the fact Mallinder has pretty much a full squad of players to pick from.
It is all very different to the last time Tigers headed to the Gardens.
Last April, the men from Welford Road took on a severely depleted Saints side.
There was no Dylan Hartley, no Calum Clark, no George North and no Ben Foden, among others.
The injury list was lengthy and though Saints fought bravely, they were eventually beaten 30-24.
They just didn’t have the depth of class and experience needed to get them over the line.
But this time they do.
And though they have now lost their past six games against Tigers - only one of those has been in Northampton - they should go into this match expecting to end that run.
Saints have won their past five fixtures at Franklin’s Gardens and can call on the power of their Six Nations stars.
Courtney Lawes, Louis Picamoles and George North have been among the best players in the recent international tournament.
And Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood weren’t too bad either!
So add that to the likes of Mike Haywood and Ben Foden, who remained at Saints and have been in good form, and Mallinder has had plenty of talent at his disposal.
Not only that, but injured players returned at Bedford last Friday night, with Campese Ma’afu, JJ Hanrahan, Luther Burrell and Tom Stephenson boosting the squad further.
Unlike last season, when things fell apart at the wrong time, this year, Saints have the heavy artillery they need to mount a realistic challenge for a play-off place.
But, of course, this is just talk.
The players now know they must walk the walk, with forwards coach Dorian West this week stressing that there are no excuses to be used during the run-in.
They may face what many would consider a horrible set of fixtures in the weeks that follow, but as prop Kieran Brookes said in the build-up to the Tigers battle - Saints should fear no one.
They are not Bristol or Worcester, who would have to play out of their skin to beat top-six teams.
They are Northampton Saints. Full of quality and full of experience.
Now they need to show it.
It is easier said than done, especially when you consider the form shown by the likes of Wasps and Saracens, both of whom Saints must face before the season is out.
If Mallinder’s men are to make the top four this time round, they will have to do it the hard way.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
And that is what Saints must do this weekend as they look to end that barren run against Tigers and put some pressure on the top four.
Tom’s prediction: Saints 25 Leicester 20