Rugby Union: McGeechan faces bald facts of Saints' decline

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The Independent Online
The Allied Dunbar Premiership is back on centre stage this afternoon after a six-week experiment in European integration.

As Chris Hewett reports, the return of domestic business is likely to be a real chore for two former international coaches.

It is almost exactly four months since Keith Wood, the phantom barber of Limerick, marked the Lions' triumph over South Africa by subjecting Ian McGeechan to a notoriously grotesque short back and sides. He need not have bothered. The trials and tribulations of coaching Northampton have left Britain's most celebrated tactician in an advanced state of premature baldness.

The Saints are down on their uppers. Knocked out of the European Conference by Connacht last week and pointless in the Allied Dunbar Premiership following defeats by Harlequins and Newcastle, McGeechan's lukewarm band of under- achievers go into today's Midlands derby with Leicester as the rankest of rank outsiders. Worse still, they have more than a dozen players on the treatment table and three of their most prized foreign imports - Jonathan Bell, Jason Chandler and Shem Tatupu - are definite non-starters against the Tigers.

Tim Rodber, the Lions No 8, returns as captain, though. His recovery from hamstring trouble has been the one positive aspect of a thoroughly rotten few weeks in the East Midlands and if Paul Grayson, England's goalkicking outside-half, passes a fitness test this morning, spirits will soar another few hundred feet.

"We haven't got time to mess around," said Rodber yesterday, fully aware that a third league defeat on the bounce would burden his side with the unmistakeable whiff of play-off fodder. "This is a hell of a game for me to come back to but we simply have to start winning. We have the ability but it's not coming out." If it fails to come out this afternoon, Franklins Gardens' lamentable decline from fortress to wendy house will be one step nearer completion.

Leicester, still blowing hot and cold but clear title contenders for all their inconsistency, are at full strength. Joel Stransky plays at outside-half with Leon Lloyd and Waisale Serevi on the wings and Bob Dwyer, their ever-demanding coach, will expect a back division of that quality to make handsome amends for last season's 22-19 defeat in the corresponding fixture.

The fact that Alan Davies would be only too willing to swap places with McGeechan offers incontrovertible proof of Bristol's parlous position at the foot of the premiership. The West Countrymen are as penniless as they are pointless and they are unlikely to find much solace at the Recreation Ground when they go eyeball to eyeball with Bath in the second of this weekend's four local derbies.

Davies, a former coach of Wales, has handed Alex Poole a league debut in the Bristol front row - the youngster goes in against the rejuvenated Victor Ubogu - while Craig Short gets the nod over the vastly experienced but under-performing Richie Collins at open-side. Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, is refusing to name his side until shortly before kick-off. Given that Bristol last won at the Rec some 16 years ago, Robbo is probably waiting for the results of complacency tests rather than fitness tests.

The remaining neighbourhood rumbles take place in London, where Richmond host Harlequins this afternoon and Wasps, the champions, welcome Saracens tomorrow. Richmond will field 10 internationals - they choose between their rival stand-offs, Earl Va'a of Western Samoa and Adrian Davies of Wales, this morning - and have earmarked the game as a "must win" affair, especially as Quins have lost Thierry Lacroix, Laurent Cabannes and Massimo Cuttitta to Latin Cup duty.