Tom Vickers' Northampton Saints v Saracens preview
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Saracens (Aviva Premiership - round 20)
Date and kick-off time: Sunday, April 16, 2017, 3pm
Venue: Stadium MK, Milton Keynes
Saints: Tuala; K Pisi, Burrell, Mallinder, Foden; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes; Lawes, Ribbans; Gibson, Wood (c), Picamoles.
Replacements: Haywood, E Waller, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Harrison, Dickson, Hutchinson, Estelles.
Saracens: Goode; Earle, Bosch, Taylor, Maitland; Lozowski, Spencer; Lamositele, George (c), Koch; Isikewe, Kruis; Conlon, Burger, Wray.Replacements: Brits, Thompston-Stringer, Du Plessis, Rhodes, B Vunipola, Taylor, Tompkins; Ashton.
Referee: Matthew Carley
Most recent meeting: Saturday, September 17, 2016: Saracens 27 Saints 12 (Aviva Premiership)
Tom’s preview: It hasn’t happened too often that Saints and Saracens have met with neither team sitting in the league’s top two at the time.
But that is the situation the clubs find themselves in for Sunday’s fixture at Stadium MK.
Of course, the anxiety levels are very low at Saracens as they have already secured a play-off semi-final with three regular-season games to go.
And Mark McCall’s men have made serene progress in Europe, setting up a mouth-watering Champions Cup semi-final against Munster in Dublin next weekend.
But while Saracens, the current Premiership and Champions Cup holders, appear to have plenty to look forward to, Saints are in a very different sort of scrap.
They were eliminated from Europe, and the Anglo-Welsh Cup, at the pool stage and face a real fight to finish in the top six.
Jim Mallinder’s men could still qualify for the Champions Cup if they finish seventh, but they would have to win two play-off matches to do it.
And that situation could still be complicated further if Gloucester win the Challenge Cup.
But that is a matter for another day.
Saints simply have to put their destiny in their own hands, by turning recent agonising, narrow losses into wins.
They have played some sublime rugby against Leicester and Wasps, but been hit with last-gasp hammer blows.
The margins at the top level are so fine that one lapse can cost you so dearly.
And Saints have found that out to destructive effect in recent weeks.
Now they need to be the ones who come out on the right side of close encounters.
And one of those will be expected this weekend, against a Saracens side they went toe to toe with at Allianz Park back in December.
On that day, Saints had held the lead, but the referee’s failure to punish Chris Ashton for a bite on Alex Waller, and Waller’s second-half yellow card, proved crucial.
It was yet another example of Mallinder’s men competing brilliantly up to a point.
They have struggled to finish teams off all season, but they need to do it now, with time running out.
Though Stadium MK is not home, this is still technically a home game, and Saints will have the bulk of the support.
They will hope it can inspire them to victory, just as it did when they edged out Saracens 25-20 at Stadium MK in April 2015.
On that occasion, Saints found a way to win a tight game against a top team.
And they simply have to do the same again this Sunday.
Tom’s prediction: Saints 23 Saracens 20