Rugby Union: Old friends and old enemies send their teams into battle

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IT used to be the match of the season, a 24-carat humdinger with everything - personal pride, the destination of the league title, the price of bread and the long-term future of the human race - riding on the outcome. Newcastle and Saracens have gatecrashed the private party over the last eight months but whenever Bath and Leicester appear simultaneously on the same rectangle of mud, the competitive fires burn anew.

Quite simply, there is no love lost. As Austin Healey, the Leicester Lip, said in January after watching Bath relieve Brive of the Heineken Cup: "I'm absolutely delighted that an English side can call themselves European champions at last, but why in the name of Christ does it have to be them?"

You get the feeling that both clubs would rather nominate Cliff Brittle for the Nobel Peace prize than acknowledge each other's successes.

The Bath coach, Andy Robinson, appeared to be steering well clear of the usual barbed one-upmanship as he assessed the prospects yesterday. "This year's title is out of our hands, just as it's out of Leicester's hands," he pointed out. "We're in the pursuing pack, both of us, and all we can hope to do is win our remaining games and look for Newcastle and Saracens to slip up somewhere along the way." It was only then that he worked the knife under the Tigers' skin by saying: "Still, at least we've got a trophy from the season." Ouch.

Almost exactly nine years ago, Robinson gathered a perfectly weighted scoring pass from a certain Dean Richards and claimed the try that clinched a famous England victory over the French at Twickenham. Tomorrow, the former back-row confreres will renew their acquaintance on the Recreation Ground touchline as Richards undertakes the most testing challenge of his fledgling coaching career.

Predictably, he was receiving no favours from his rival - Robinson flatly refused to reveal his line-up, commenting that Deano would "have to get used to the little trials that are part and parcel of a coach's life" - and the Leicester legend freely admitted that the new job was turning out to be every bit as demanding as originally feared. It was not made any easier by the sending-off of Martin Corry during last week's derby punch-up with Northampton and yesterday, Richards and his fellow Welford Road chiefs suspended the England flanker for a fortnight.

Newcastle, the title favourites, travel to Richmond this afternoon with a full hand of Scottish internationals. Doddie Weir, Gary Armstrong and Alan Tait all return after missing the close shave against Sale in midweek and two points against the fast-subsiding Londoners will return Rob Andrew and company to the top of the table.

However, the lead will change hands again tomorrow if Saracens survive what is certain to be a hairy afternoon against Gloucester and while Kingsholm is proving to be a real mugger's alley this season, Andrew expects them to do just that. "Both Saracens and ourselves are proving adept at sneaking wins - we've both been squeezing home by four or five points of late - and it's that ability that is keeping us where we are," he said. "Yes, we've got games in hand. But having them and winning them are two different things. It's a very, very tough Premiership this year."

Tough? Just ask Aadel Kardooni, the former Leicester scrum-half who is - or, rather, was - helping Bedford continue their runaway surge to the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two title. A burglary at Kardooni's flat prevented him from making an important training session at Goldington Road and as a result, Bedford's ever-sympathetic director of rugby, Geoff Cooke, dropped him from today's home game with Wakefield. Charming.