Preview – Bristol v Northampton Saints

Fly-half Danny Gray starts his first league game for Bristol since the 2003-4 season as coach Richard Hill makes nine changes to his starting line-up for the Guinness Premiership visit of Northampton Saints at Memorial Stadium on Sunday.

Gray has featured in European and Domestic Cup rugby in recent times for Bristol as well as featuring for England on the World Sevens Series circuit but has found his path to the number 10 shirt blocked by the likes of David Hill and Jason Strange for Bristol.

However, his recent form with England Sevens and positive showing at Vicarage Road against Saracens last weekend have prompted Richard Hill to select him for Sunday’s clash.

He will be partnered at scrum-half by the returning Shaun Perry who, whilst being on England duty in the Six Nations in recent weeks, is raring to go after not seeing much game time.

Craig Morgan replaces Lee Robinson on the right wing and Rob Higgitt takes up his usual berth at inside centre to complete the changes in the backline.

Hill turns to experience in the pack with Dave Hilton, Mark Regan, Roy Winters, Gareth Llewellyn and Alfie To’oala all returning. The first four were rested last weekend but the Samoan is back after several weeks out with a hamstring injury.

Richard Hill explained the changes when he unveiled his team to the media.

“We’ve got the strongest side we think we can put out this weekend. We’re going to do that for the next five games, the four league games and the Cup match against Bath,” said Hill.

“I have no regrets about the team I fielded last week.

“The likes of Danny Gray and Bernardo Stortoni emerged well from it so it was a good exercise. I wouldn’t have wanted to lose by that much but hopefully it’ll act as motivation for us this weekend.

“Danny has looked very sharp in training and has gained a lot of confidence from his time with the England Sevens set up. He changed the game for us last weekend and it’s worth giving him a go.”

“The coaches have confidence in him and so do the rest of the players. They like playing with him. He poses a threat to opposition defences. It’s a positive move and we’ve made it because we want to win the game.”

“At the end of the day, we’re still third. We’ve got ourselves into this position and we’re set up where we want to be. We’ve got the best run in of all the top 6 clubs. It’s just a question now of whether we’re good enough to win at least two of the remaining games to stay in the top 4.”

“If we can do that, then it will have been a very successful season.”

Meanwhile, Scottish international winger Sean Lamont has come straight into the Northampton Saints’ starting line-up after returning from Six Nations duty.

He is one of two changes in personnel and his inclusion sees captain Bruce Reihana move to his regular position of full-back. Vaughan Going drops to the bench.

The other change is in the pack, where Darren Fox and Ben Lewitt have swapped places between the starting XV and the bench. Also coming onto the bench is French international David Gerard, who replaces Matt Lord.

Form: Bristol Rugby have now suffered four straight reversals, and will be anxious to avoid picking up their first successive defeats at Memorial Stadium since the early part of the 2005/06 Guinness Premiership season. Northampton Saints find themselves at the foot of the Guinness Premiership table for the first time this season following their 18-all draw at home to Sale on Saturday – the first draw at Franklin’s Gardens since Harlequins were the visitors in November 2001. Bristol won 14-8 when the two sides met in the Guinness Premiership at Franklin’s Gardens on 27 January, whilst Northampton have won on their last three visits to Memorial Stadium in the Premiership.

Bristol: 15 Bernardo Stortoni, 14 Craig Morgan, 13 Neil Brew, 12 Rob Higgitt, 11

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