Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs preview

London Irish secured a late win at the Madejski Stadium to leave the Saints on the canvas on Boxing Day (picture: Sharon Lucey)
London Irish secured a late win at the Madejski Stadium to leave the Saints on the canvas on Boxing Day (picture: Sharon Lucey)

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs (Aviva Premiership round eight)

Date/kick-off time: Friday, January 1 (3pm)

Weather forecast: 5C, cloudy

Referee: JP Doyle

Outs: Saints: Corbisiero (knee), Wood (shoulder), Clark (shoulder), Brookes (knee).

Teams: Saints: Foden (c); Collins, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Hanrahan, Fotuali’i; A Waller, Haywood, Hill; Lawes, Matfield; Gibson, Harrison, Dickinson. Replacements: Hartley, E Waller, Denman, Day, Paterson, Dickson, Myler, Mallinder.

Exeter Chiefs: Dollman; Nowell, Campagnaro, Whitten, Woodburn; Steenson, Chudley; Moon, Yeandle (c), Francis; Lees, Parling; Armand, Johnson, Waldrom. Replacements: Taione, Rimmer, Low, Atkins, White, Lewis, Hooley, Short.

Most recent meeting: Sunday, April 12: Exeter Chiefs 21 Saints 10 (Aviva Premiership)

Tom’s preview: When your life revolves around seasons, the start of a new year can almost seem insignificant.

Really, it is pretty meaningless what you did during the past 12 months.

You could have had an amazing first six months and finished top of the table before enduring a slump and seeing your record tarnished.

That is what has happened to many big teams in England this season, with examples in both football and rugby.

Chelsea won the Barclays Premier League title in May, but are now languishing in 14th having won just five of their 19 league matches this season.

So their year is a mixed one, whereas last season was one to remember.

The same can almost be said of Saints, who topped the Premiership regular-season standings for the first time in May.

They are now fifth in the league, having lost four of their opening seven games, bringing their record for the year to 14 wins in 29 matches.

But neither the history-making table-topping achievement or the recent run of three games without a win can define their year.

And the point is that reflecting on 2015 is not necessarily a worthwhile exercise.

However, when you are searching for turning points to end a bad run, the new year can serve a purpose.

For Chelsea and for Saints, who are in nowhere near the mess of the west London football club who recently sacked their manager, José Mourinho, 2016 can be used as a clean slate.

They can attempt to banish recent records and start afresh, citing a change of year as reason for a change of fortune.

Sometimes it just takes something like that, a mentality-altering date, to help turn things around.

And Saints desperately need to do just that. Immediately.

A defeat to Exeter Chiefs on the first day of the new year would be a hammer blow.

The margin for error is decreasing for Jim Mallinder’s men.

Because while sitting fifth having not played well is not too bad, the games that they have lost could come back to haunt them.

Especially when you consider they still have to face all of the top teams on the road this season.

Games at Worcester and London Irish, although not foregone conclusions, would have been earmarked as wins.

But the loss of both of those matches, and the one at Sale, where Saints traditionally struggle, means Mallinder’s men will now have to pull a few rabbits out of the hat.

They will have to go to a Leicester, a Saracens, an Exeter and claim points.

But if there is one thing anyone who has followed Saints during the past few years knows, it is that they are the masters of surprise.

When their backs are against the wall, they come out fighting.

And if they can use the new year to get back to the Northampton of old, they will have every chance of making it seven successive Premiership top-four finishes.

Here’s to a happy new year!

Tom’s prediction: Saints 18 Exeter 17