The Guinness Premiership looks set to smash box-office records on a bumper weekend of Christmas action.
Cipriani the headline act
The Guinness Premiership looks set to smash box-office records on a bumper weekend of Christmas action. Worcester and Northampton kick off the festive programme today, with five more games scheduled the following day, including Harlequins' so-called "Big Game 2" against Wasps at Twickenham, which will see Danny Cipriani make his first start since suffering a fractured fibula in October.
The record total attendance for any round of Premiership games stands at 108,467, which was set during this season's opening games in September. But that figure is set to be surpassed, given Quins' likely crowd of 70,000-plus, while Leicester's Welford Road appointment with Sale Sharks is a confirmed 24,000 sell-out. Other home venues - Worcester, Bath, London Irish and Newcastle - are likely to greet a combined audience of between 40,000 and 50,000, suggesting a total figure approaching 150,000.
Worcester, having drawn three successive Premiership games, could see their victory bid against Sixways visitors Northampton boosted by the return of highly rated prop Matt Mullan, probably off the bench. Mullan has not played since suffering a serious hamstring injury during Worcester's Amlin Challenge Cup loss to Montpellier 11 weeks ago. Worcester rugby director Mike Ruddock said: "Matt has trained fully this week and looks in good shape.
"If Matt does come through and gets some game time, I know he will be keen to impress, not just for us but also the England selectors to remind them ahead of the Six Nations." One of the biggest obstacles to a first Worcester league win for exactly three months is presented by Saints wing Chris Ashton. The former rugby league star has scored his team's last five Premiership tries, equalling Tom Varndell's record at Leicester in 2006.
With seven league touchdowns this term, 22-year-old Ashton is top of the Premiership try-scoring chart and in such blistering form he must have attracted England manager Martin Johnson's attention ahead of the Six Nations. The highlight of tomorrow's action sees leaders Saracens making the trip to second-placed Irish, who are six points behind a team that have won nine and drawn one of their 10 league starts.
Bath, though, could find themselves attracting some unwanted attention if they lose at home to fierce west country rivals Gloucester. The six-time league champions - the last of those titles came 13 years ago - have never gone eight Premiership games without a win. But they will claim that unwanted statistic if Gloucester can make it five successive victories at Bath's expense. And Bath might even end 2009 propping up the Premiership, should Leeds Carnegie defeat Newcastle at Kingston Park, guaranteeing an intriguing clash in Yorkshire between Leeds and Bath on Saturday week.
Leicester and Sale, meanwhile, also meet tomorrow, when Tigers will defend an unbeaten home record in all competitions stretching back to September last year. * PA Sport