Harlequins v Northampton Saints: Tom Vickers' match preview

Saints beat Harlequins at the end of September but have won just once since (picture: Sharon Lucey)
Saints beat Harlequins at the end of September but have won just once since (picture: Sharon Lucey)

Fixture: Harlequins v Northampton Saints

Competition: Aviva Premiership

Venue: Twickenham, London

Date: Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kick-off time: 4pm

Television coverage: BT Sport 2 and Channel 5

Harlequins: Brown; Walker, Alofa Alofa, Roberts, Visser; Smith, Care; Marler, Ward (c), Sinckler; Merrick, Glynn; Chisholm, Robshaw, Luamanu.
Replacements: Ella, Boyce, Swainston, Matthews, Wallace, Kitto, Lang, Cheeseman.

Saints: Mallinder; Tuala, Horne, Burrell, Foden; Francis, Groom; Ma'afu, Hartley (c), Ford-Robinson; Ratuniyarawa, Lawes; Wood, Gibson, Harrison.
Replacements: Haywood, van Wyk, Hill, Paterson, Nutley, Reinach, Myler, North.

Outs: Saints: Kieran Brookes (hand), Alex Waller (arm), Tom Collins (foot), Jamie Elliott (hamstring), Rory Hutchinson (back)

Referee: JP Doyle

Most recent meeting: Saturday, September 30, 2017: Saints 30 Harlequins 22 (Aviva Premiership)

Tom's preview: When Saints beat Harlequins at Twickenham in their final game of 2014, it brought the curtain down on one of the most successful years in the club's history.

The green, black and gold had beaten almost every team put before them, claiming an Aviva Premiership and Challenge Cup double and starting the following season in style.

But when the two teams lock horns on the hallowed turf this weekend, it will be for the final time in a year that has been one of the worst for those of a Northampton persuasion.

Because since the end of 2014, things simply haven't gone to plan for Saints.

They did manage to finish top of the Aviva Premiership regular-season table in 2015, but the first half of that year always felt like something of a struggle.

And since then, things have continued in the same fashion.

So much so, that Saints, who finished fifth in 2015/16 and seventh in 2016/17, are currently closing in on or, in some people's opinions, have already reached their nadir.

They have suffered 11 defeats from their past 12 matches in what has been an alarming slump since they beat Harlequins at the end of September.

That Franklin's Gardens success was a fourth in a row for the green, black and gold, who had shot to the top of the Premiership pile.

But that early optimism was blown away as Saints were made to suffer, week in, week out towards the end of a calendar year that has been a sobering experience.

Saints have won just 14 of their 34 matches during 2017, with narrow defeats against big teams earlier in the year turning into huge losses in recent months.

There had been glimmers of hope, with the green, black and gold showing a new-found freedom in their attacking play, led by Alan Dickens.

Dickens’ work has been recognised by the fact he was the man to step up as interim head coach following Jim Mallinder’s departure earlier this month.

But attacking adventure has unfortunately come hand in hand with defensive difficulties.

Saints have shipped a whopping 117 tries in their 34 matches this year - 49 in the 17 towards the end of last season and 68 during this campaign.

Those are eye-watering statistics and something the club will have to address with coaching consultant Alan Gaffney being drafted in until the end of the season.

The 70-year-old Australian will need all of his experience to help Saints turn the tide this time round.

And how they would love to end the year with a win to start 2018 on a high.

They certainly have a chance against a Harlequins team who are also on a bad run, losing five of their past six games in all competitions.

And what better incentive is there than to do the business at Twickenham, where more than 70,000 fans are expected.

Saints will need all of their big-game experience for this battle.

Like Quins, they can call on a few England stars who have graced English rugby HQ on several occasions.

It will be interesting to see which men are able to have the biggest influence on their side's fortunes this Saturday.

Saints need it to be Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood.

They need a big result, a way to put this year to bed in the best possible fashion.

Whether they can, it remains to be seen.

But one thing that is not in doubt is that whatever happens, they will be glad to see the back of 2017.

Tom's prediction: Harlequins 28 Saints 23