Premiership stories to look out for in round 15

With eight rounds remaining in the Aviva Premiership regular season, there is still a lot to play for, as five sides are within striking distance of the play-off spots.

From debuts to returning internationals, here's what you need to look out for in round 15...  

Vun in the Toon 

Tongan flyer Kerry Cooper Vuna makes his Bath Rugby debut on Friday night as Todd Blackadder's men aim for three wins on-the-bounce in the competition when they take on Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park. 

The winger arrived from fellow Premiership side Worcester Warriors last month, and although he is a current Tonga international, he also won two Test caps for Australia in 2012. Elsewhere, Zach Mercer, who has been involved with England during the NatWest 6 Nations, is named at No 8 for the the West Country side.

Having their four game winning run ended by Saracens last weekend, the Falcons have made six changes with former England international Toby Flood in at fly half, alongside Josh Matavesi, Alex Tait and Chris Harris in the backs. Whilst Evan Olmstead and Jon Welsh are reinstated in the forwards. 

Dean Richards' men bested Bath by a point in round four of the competition, running out eventual 33-32 winners at The Rec, and will be aiming for a repeat performance as they look to break into the top half of the table.

Stat: Newcastle have only achieved a Premiership double over Bath once before – in the inaugural season of 1997/98.

Stars on show at Sale

Sale Sharks haven't lost a home game in the Aviva Premiership since round two - back in October 2017 - but will be wary of the threat posed by the current European champions Saracens, when the sides meet at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday night.

England locks Nick Isiekwe and George Kruis return to the Sarries pack, having both been part of England's NatWest 6 Nations campaign, as Mark McCall's men look to close the two point gap separating them from table toppers Exeter Chiefs.

Plenty of former and current international talent will be on show as: Marland Yarde, Denny Solomona and Faf de Klerk feature for the Sharks whilst Alex Lozowski, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Wales wing Liam Williams start for the north Londoners.

Stat: Saracens have lost only one of their last 13 clashes with Sale in the Premiership, back in February 2015.

Valuable points

Just one point separates Leicester Tigers in eighth from Harlequins in ninth, in the Aviva Premiership standings, and both director's of rugby have named strong squads to contest the affair.

England prop Kyle Sinckler is named in Quins' starting line up, alongside Lewis Boyce - who was drafted into Eddie Jones' wider NatWest 6 Nations squad last month - whilst former England U20 World Rugby Championship winner Joe Marchant is set to make his 50th appearance for the west London outfit.

Having returned from an England senior training camp, there is a place for Gabriel Ibitoye on the bench, after his England U20 heroics against Wales U20 last weekend, where he ran in a superb solo try from the half way line.

Leicester's only victory in the last six rounds of the competition was 19-15 at home to London Irish, and Matt O'Connor has warned his side need a big home performance.

Tom Youngs captains the Tigers from hooker, and Manu Tuilagi features in the centres, as they go in search of their eighth league win. Telusa Veainu - who has run for 825 metres and beaten 42 defenders so far this campaign - starts at full back.

Stat: Harlequins last victory at Welford Road was 23-16 in November 2013.

Paice maker

David Paice is set to break London Irish's all-time appearance record when his side travel to Franklin's Gardens to take on Northampton Saints on Saturday.

It will be the hooker's 283rd outing for the men in green, as they go in search of their second win of the season, at an apt venue for Paice - as it is Franklin's Gardens that he made his Premiership debut. 

Nick Kennedy's men haven't won away from home in the tournament since a visit to London Welsh almost three years ago - although they have come close numerous times this season.

After featuring in the loss to England at Twickenham last weekend in the NatWest 6 Nations, wing George North returns to Northampton - where the Saints are unbeaten in 2018 

And with Harry Mallinder retained by England head coach Eddie Jones, Piers Francis steps into the 10 shirt, where he has Luther Burrell and Rob Horne for company in the centres.

Stat: London Irish’s only win at Franklin’s Gardens since 2004 was by a single point in September 2011.

Local derby 

The Warriors are coming off a confidence high, having last week registered the biggest scalp of the season, beating Exeter 6-5 at Sandy Park in challenging conditions.

And for this weekend's clash with Gloucester, they will be boosted by the return of Josh Adams and Dave Denton, who have been on NatWest 6 Nations duty with Wales and Scotland respectively.

It is a relatively short trip for the Cherry & Whites, who currently occupy fourth spot in the league table by one point.

Johan Ackermann has  been forced to make two changes from the side that beat Leicester last weekend, as Matt Scott and Ben Vellacott replace Ollie Thorley and Willi Heinz respectively.

Stat: Worcester have won four of the last seven games in the Premiership.

Gopperth returns

Jimmy Gopperth is set to return to action having been sidelined since December last year, when Wasps welcome league leader Exeter to the Ricoh Arena on Sunday.

The current Aviva Premiership player-of-the-year partners Juan De Jongh in the centre, and has Danny Cipriani inside him at 10. Elsewhere, Marcus Watson is introduced on the right wing.

After making his NatWest 6 Nations debut in Rome earlier this month against Wales, prop Alec Hepburn starts in the Exeter front row alongside Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Rob Baxter's men may have lost their last two Aviva Premiership Rugby matches, away at Newcastle and at home to Worcester, but they haven't lost three in a row in the same season since January 2015.

Stat: Wasps are the best team in Aviva Premiership Rugby on current form having obtained 24 league points from the last six rounds.