Premiership stories to look out for in round 20

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With just three rounds remaining of the Aviva Premiership left, top spot, semi-final places and relegation are still to be decided.

This weekend could see a real impact on who finishes where in the 2017/18 campaign and here are some of the main stories to look out for ahead of this weekend.

Northern powerhouse

It has been some years since both Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks have been competing at the top end of the table, but both have serious ambitions of finishing in a semi-final place as they sit fifth and sixth respectively going into the weekend.

In the only game on Friday night, Craig Maxwell-Keys takes charge of his 50th Premiership game at Kingston Park as Dean Richards has rotated his Falcons side making eight changes. That includes a new half back pairing of Micky Young and Joel Hogdson while flanker Gary Graham returns for the first time since February after a neck injury.

Sale include wing Poalo Odogwu and centre Luke James with full back Mike Haley suspended, while England Under 20 playmaker Cameron Redpath will make his Premiership debut if he comes off the bench. After their win by a point at AJ Bell Stadium earlier this season, Newcastle are looking for a first season double over Sale since 2006/07, but the Sharks have won on three of their lat four visits to the north east.

Stat: Newcastle have won their last eight matches in all competitions at home.

Two ton Brown

Following their defeat at home to London Irish, one of the biggest stories from England's top flight this week has been the announcement that director of rugby John Kingston will leave Harlequins at the end of the season.

The league continues for Quins though and England full back Mike Brown makes his 200th Premiership appearance in a team that sees five changes. Wales centre Jamie Roberts is in the backline as they look to end a run of nine straight defeats on the road.

There is also a milestone in the Gloucester side as Henry Trinder appears in the Premiership for the 100th time, as the Cherry and Whites aims for the top four remain alive. Billy Burns comes in at 10 with Owen Williams injured as they look to make a dent in the five point gap between them and the top four places.

Stat: Harlequins have one win in their last six matches and have lost their last nine away games in a row.

Derby day

Leicester Tigers' recent form has propelled them into third place in the Premiership as they look to secure a semi-final spot for the 16th straight season. They have been boosted by the return of England scrum half Ben Youngs to the bench after his long-term knee injury.

The man in the nine shirt, Sam Harrison, makes his 150th appearance for the Tigers, as does Graham Kitchener, while in a day of landmarks Adam Thompstone players in the Premiership for the 100th time.

Northampton have a new captain with Australian Rob Horne leading the side as Ben Foden and Mike Haywood are again included in the XV. Saints, who are on a run of four league defeats in a row, did beat Leicester at Franklin's Gardens earlier this campaign but have only once achieved a season double over them back in 2003/04.

Stat: Leicester are the best team in the Premiership on current form having gained 24 points from their last six outings.

Ricoh return

Wasps sit fourth going into the weekend but the Coventry-based side but are on a run of one win in four as they welcome Worcester to Ricoh Arena.

Dai Young's Wasps lost with the last play of the game at Sale last time out but they are boosted by the news that Danny Cipriani and Josh Bassett have both passed their return to play protocols to start. They are joined in the backline this week by centre  Juan De Jongh, while prop Simon McIntrye makes his 150th club appearance.

Worcester have not won away at Wasps since 2012 and but have a new nine and 10 as they look to change that record in scrum half Michael Dowsett and fly half Dorian Jones following impressive cameos last week. A win for Alan Solomons side and anything a victory of London Irish in their game against Exeter means confirmation of Premiership rugby at Sixways for the 2018/19 campaign.

Stat: Wasps have won the last eight meetings against Worcester, a run that stretches back to March 2013.

Still fighting

London Irish welcome champions Exeter Chiefs to Madejski Stadium as they look to keep their slim hopes of avoiding relegation alive.

The Exiles, who have won three of their last five games at home, secured an impressive bonus-point win at Twickenham Stoop last time out so have stuck to pretty much the same formula with just one change - with Sebastian De Chaves coming into the second-row.

Rob Baxter's Exeter became the first team to confirm their place in the semi-finals last weekend and a win this weekend will confirm a last four place at home. Gareth Steenson returns at fly half to captain the side while England back Jack Nowell is handed a start after scoring two tries off the bench in his last outing.

Stat: London Irish have only won one of the last 10 meetings against Exeter.

Landmark day

Saracens welcome Bath to Allianz Park as they look to continue the pressure on leaders Exeter and secure themselves a home semi-final spot.

Chris Wyles makes his 250th appearance for Sarries 10 years after his debut with the club. England scrum half Richard Wigglesworth comes back into the side, and outside him, despite only playing in 10 league games this campaign, England's Owen Farrell leads the points scoring for this season on 138 points .

Bath have lost their last three league games but have not lost four in a row since the 2011/12 season - however they beat Sarries at the Rec in the second round and are looking for first season double over them for the first time in 14 years. Tom Ellis is the only change to the starting XV as he replaces injured captain Matt Garvey.

Stat: Bath's only victory at Saracens in the Premiership era was in 2010 at Vicarage Road.


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