London Irish winger Justin Bishop is aiming to push himself into the Six Nations frame over the Festive season.
The 19-cap Ireland international was overlooked for national service by now-departed coach Warren Gatland after being dumped in the middle of last season’s competition.
But now Eddie O’Sullivan has taken command, Bishop spies an opportunity to revive his international career, and a Zurich Premiership victory over Saracens at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow would be the perfect way to emphasise his claims for a recall.
‘‘This has to be a fresh start for me,’’ said Bishop.
‘‘Getting back into the Ireland team is definitely the thing I want most of all.
‘‘Last year we weren’t performing as a side at London Irish so we weren’t going to get watched.
‘‘But this year we are performing well, so I want to do everything I can to impress.’’
The Exiles have already recorded one handsome victory over Sarries, Bishop among the try-scorers in a 55-13 rout at Vicarage Road last month.
They start hot favourites to complete a quickfire double, and consolidate their unexpected top-four berth.
Richard Bates is suffering from bruised ribs, so coach Brendan Venter shuffles his back-row. Declan Danaher slots in at blindside flanker, with veteran Chris Sheasby returning at number eight.
‘‘No-one would have expected London Irish to be fourth in the table,’’ said Bishop.
‘‘It’s early days yet, but this is the most organised Irish team I have played in.
‘‘Brendan Venter is very good at that, and that is what you need for the players’ talents to come through.’’
Saracens have injury-plagued Aussie centre Tim Horan available for a rare appearance after missing the last five games.
Abdel Benazzi is out for three months with ligament damage, so brother Khalid takes over in the second-row. The Frenchman partners Kieran Roche, as Scott Murray is also ruled out.
‘‘We haven’t seen the best of Tim,’’ admitted Sarries chief executive Francois Pienaar.
‘‘He adds another dimension to our attack and takes some of the pressure off Jannie de Beer.
‘‘London Irish played very well against us last month and are a real force this season.
‘‘But the one positive was that we didn’t drop our heads and with a few more players back and the younger ones getting more experience, we will be looking to make it more of a contest.’’
Bath are hit by an injury crisis ahead of the trip north to Newcastle.
Flanker Joe El Abd is out for three months after suffering a broken leg in a freak training ground incident, adding to the woes of coach Jon Callard, who is also without Gareth Cooper and could see Mark Regan and skipper Dan Lyle miss out.
‘‘Confidence is low at the moment,’’ said Callard.
‘‘There is a huge weight of expectation on our shoulders to get results. We know we are underachieving as a club.’’
Newcastle have skipper Doddie Weir back, but fellow Scot Gary Armstrong once again has to be content with a place on the bench as scrum-half Hall Charlton continues his partnership with Jonny Wilkinson.
On current form, the Falcons’ main worry could be the weather. Snow is forecast in the north-east and Kingston Park groundsman Ray Grieve has taken delivery of a new pitch cover to protect the playing surface.
Bristol coach Dean Ryan is hoping for an early Christmas present against Northampton tomorrow as he celebrates a welcome return to the Memorial Stadium dug-out.
Ryan returns from a four-week touchline ban, knowing his must inspire his misfiring troops to a victory over the Saints to avoid being dragged into an increasingly frantic relegation battle.
Ryan’s match-day involvement with the Shoguns has been seriously affected after the Rugby Football Union inflicted a heavy punishment for a recent after-match outburst against a match official.
But, he welcomes back lock Garath Archer and England Under-21 centre Andrew Higgins to his starting line-up at the Memorial Ground.
With new coach Wayne Smith briefly back in New Zealand, director of rugby John Steele remains in temporary control at Northampton.
He has former All Black flanker Andrew Blowers available after three weeks out with a neck injury, while number eight Grant Seely has recovered from a hamstring strain.
However, Steele will leave selection until just before the game, with Scotland centre John Leslie facing a late fitness test on a twisted knee.
Both hooker Olivier Azam and flanker Jake Boer are fit again after injury for Gloucester’s visit to basement outfit Wasps, while England prop Trevor Woodman is set to make his first Premiership start for more than a month.
The Premiership’s basement boys have never lost to Gloucester at home in league combat but were soundly beaten when the two sides met at Kingsholm last month.
Under-fire coach Nigel Melville makes two changes, with Shane Roiser replaces Stuart Abbott, Fraser Waters switching back to the centres to accommodate the new man on the wing. England lock Simon Shaw also returns for Joe Beardshaw, who like Abbott, starts on the bench.