Table-toppers Exeter head to embattled Northampton for Friday’s Gallagher Premiership clash with both sides seeking to avoid a Champions Cup phoney war. Exeter host Northampton on September 20 in the keenly anticipated Champions Cup quarter-final, but both outfits are intent on Friday’s league clash being anything but a European curtain-raiser.

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The Premiership fixture glut has seen Exeter rotate their resources again, with an entirely new XV due to start against the Saints. Northampton have lost five league games on the spin at Franklin’s Gardens and boss Chris Boyd knows even a victory against the high-flying Chiefs might not be enough to keep the Saints in the play-off picture.

Northampton’s desperation for a Premiership victory has provided enough material for Exeter rugby director Rob Baxter to keep his charges on their toes this week. “It’s a really interesting challenge for us,” said Baxter.

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“Obviously, we’ve been going well and Northampton have had a bit of a mixed bag since we all came back. Chris Boyd has come out this week and said they have to change something, simply because they need to start winning games of rugby again.

“Whether that means we end up running into what you’d call their full-strength side – or we end up running into a mix-and-match side, we just don’t know what is coming. In a way, that’s a nice challenge for us in itself, because we feel we will be taking a good team up there and one which has shown previously that it can perform extremely well.

“As I’ve said to the lads, it’s not always the result which is the most important factor for me. It’s often how you improve as a player and as a team which is more important and that’s very much the approach we must take into Northampton. I want us to be a better group of players by the time we come through this next block.

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“Over the Northampton, Gloucester and Saracens games, we need to come out that being a really strong, tough, well-prepared unit, who are ready to go into a European quarter-final then, hopefully, a semi-final, then rolling into what will be some huge knockout fixtures as the Premiership comes to a conclusion.”

Saints boss Boyd has made eleven changes from the side that lost at Harlequins, with Northampton having endured three defeats in their four outings post-lockdown. Teimana Harrison will captain the Saints, with JJ Tonks and Courtney Lawes alongside him in the back row.

“We’re not going to talk about the recent home record, and just focus on beating Exeter and keeping our opportunity to make the top four alive,” said Boyd about a must-win Premiership encounter.  “Exeter are really good at what they do and they’re a tough nut to crack, but we’ve got to face what they bring and make a plan to break them down, and then convert our opportunities into points – we’ve got to be good enough to take them.”

Melani Nanai will be back in action when Worcester host third-placed Bristol at Sixways. Nanai returns after a three-match suspension to replace Chris Pennell, with the Warriors seeking back-to-back home wins. Bristol have made 13 changes from their 40-7 loss at Sale, restoring many of their frontline talents to the starting XV.

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Steven Luatua will captain Bristol from the back row, with England prop Kyle Sinckler starting at tighthead prop. Only Ed Holmes and Siale Piutau have kept their places from that hefty defeat at Sale.

Worcester Warriors v Bristol Bears (Sixways, 6pm Friday) 

WORCESTER: 15. Melani Nanai; 14. Tom Howe, 13. Ollie Lawrence, 12. Francois Venter, 11. Noah Heward; 10. Duncan Weir, 9. Francois Hougaard; 1. Ethan Waller, 2. Niall Annett, 3. Nick Schonert, 4. Anton Bresler, 5. Graham Kitchener, 6. Ted Hill (capt), 7. Matt Kvesic, 8. Cornell du Preez. Reps: 16. Isaac Miller, 17. Callum Black, 18. Richard Palframan, 19. Andrew Kitchener, 20. Matt Cox, 21. Gareth Simpson, 22. Billy Searle, 23. Ashley Beck.

BRISTOL: 15. Charles Piutau; 14. Luke Morahan, 13. Semi Radradra, 12. Siale Piutau, 11. Henry Purdy; 10. Callum Sheedy, 9. Harry Randall; 1. Max Lahiff, 2. Bryan Byrne, 3. Kyle Sinckler, 4. Ed Holmes, 5. Chris Vui, 6. Steven Luatua (capt), 7. Dan Thomas, 8. Nathan Hughes. Reps: 16. Harry Thacker, 17. Jake Woolmore, 18. John Afoa, 19. Joe Joyce, 20. Ben Earl, 21. Andy Uren, 22. Ioan Lloyd, 23. Piers O’Conor.

Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs (Franklin’s Gardens, 7.45pm Friday)

NORTHAMPTON: 15. George Furbank; 14. Ahsee Tuala, 13. Matt Proctor, 12. Rory Hutchinson, 11. Tom Collins; 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Henry Taylor; 1. Francois van Wyk, 2. James Fish, 3. Owen Franks, 4. David Ribbans, 5. Api Ratuniyarawa, 6. Courtney Lawes, 7. JJ Tonks, 8. Teimana Harrison (capt). Reps: 16. Sam Matavesi, 17. Nick Auterac, 18. Paul Hill, 19. Nick Isiekwe, 20. Shaun Adendorff, 21. Alex Mitchell, 22. Piers Francis,23. Taqele Naiyaravoro,

EXETER: 15. Josh Hodge; 14. Tom O’Flaherty, 13. Phil Dollman, 12. Tom Hendrickson, 11. Corey Baldwin; 10. Gareth Steenson, 9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; 1. Alec Hepburn, 2. Jack Yeandle (capt), 3. Tomas Francis, 4. Dave Dennis, 5. Sam Skinner, 6. Jannes Kirsten, 7. Sean Lonsdale, 8. Don Armand. Reps: 16. Jack Innard, 17. Billy Keast, 18. Alfie Petch, 19. Tom Price, 20. Richard Capstick, 21. Joe Snow, 22. Harvey Skinner, 23. Tom Wyatt.

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