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Saints boosted by England duo as they look to continue setting Premiership pace

Hartley and Francis will return for Saints as they look to maintain their place at the top of the league. Photo: PA

Northampton will look to cement their place at the summit of the Aviva Premiership at Gloucester on Saturday while bolstered by the return of England duo Dylan Hartley and Piers Francis.

Hartley has been missing since the round two victory over Leicester because of a hand problem and Francis, who won his first cap in Argentina in June, will make his club debut after recovering from a jaw injury.

Five weeks since being over-run 55-24 by Saracens at Twickenham, Saints are joint Premiership leaders after stitching together five successive victories that see them riding the crest of a wave into Kingsholm.

The return to form of George North has contributed to their surge up the table, but the Wales wing urges caution over an impressive start that has identified them as title contenders.

"You never want to begin a season on a result like that, especially in your first outing when we wanted to set out our stall. It couldn't have been any further from what we're about," North said.

"We dusted ourselves down and focused on taking each week as it comes. It's been about us not getting ahead of ourselves. Last season we got too worried about other results and things, and we lost our way.

"That Saracens loss had a big exclamation sign around it, but we've come together since. We're nowhere near the perfect performance but we're building nicely.

"If we can finish that Premiership block top of the league as well, that would give us great confidence and momentum into Europe, and then back into the Premiership as well.

"After last season our goal is to finish in the top four and we feel like we're a top four team. To be top now is testament to the work we've done so far, but you can't rest on that."

Micky Ward is hoping Newcastle have steel in their battle against Exeter. Credit: PA

Northampton lead surprise second-place team Newcastle on points difference and a fascinating test of the Falcons' early season title credentials awaits against champions Exeter at Sandy Park.

"We've already had a few physical challenges this season but this is the one I've always been most excited for, and our pack has gone well so far," Newcastle forwards coach Micky Ward said.

"Our pack has got the bit between their teeth and they've really been testing teams, but what better place to test themselves than away at the champions?"

Former Toulouse fly-half Toby Flood could make the first appearance of his second spell at Kingston Park after recovering from a hamstring problem to take his place on the bench.

Bath host winless Worcester looking to build on the defensive masterclass that enabled them to halt a two-match losing run at Wasps last Sunday, while George Ford has been named captain for Leicester's trip to London Irish.