Rugby Union: Title-chasing Saracens extend high-risk strategy

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SARACENS have lived so close to the edge over the last fortnight that one more piece of calculated brinkmanship should not make much difference either way. The Premiership leaders will take on a rejuvenated London Irish outfit at Watford tomorrow without four of their acknowledged "big six" - only Tony Diprose and Philippe Sella remain of the most cultured sextet in the English game - and by way of raising the stakes higher, they have also decided to rest Ryan Constable, Steve Ravenscroft and Ben Sturnham.

A risky business, certainly, but Saracens mined a rich seam of secondary talent during their epic victory over Harlequins on Wednesday night and the force is now with them to such a degree that it will come as no surprise if the likes of Matt Singer, Kevin Sorrell, Adrian Olver and Alex Bennett leave a lasting impression on the Exiles.

Tomorrow's game has come a day early for Michael Lynagh, who has not played since dropping the most memorable goal of a great career against Newcastle just under a fortnight ago. The former Wallaby captain had a benign growth removed from his groin early last week and although he had originally planned to face the Irish, the Saracens selectors were more concerned with ensuring his participation in next weekend's Tetley's Bitter Cup final. "The stitches are out, but there is still some bruising," said Mike Scott, the team manager. "It's sensible to take the safe option."

Francois Pienaar, the playercoach, is also homing in on a cup final comeback after twanging a hamstring during the Newcastle match. "Francois is still in South Africa after attending the funeral of Kitch Christie, but he came through an eightkilometre run on Thursday with no ill effects," Scott revealed.

The major worry concerns Kyran Bracken. The England and Lions scrum- half spends more time on the treatment table than most players spend in bed - he lasted only 40 minutes at The Stoop on Wednesday after missing the trip to Leicester four days previously.

Saracens' cup final opponents are also keeping their most potent powder dry for the big occasion. Wasps rest eight first-choicers for the London derby at Richmond; Lawrence Dallaglio, Simon Shaw, Mark Weedon and the entire front row will be missing from the pack, while Mike Friday and Alex King stand down from the half-back positions. Jon Ufton makes his first start at full-back since August while Adam Black comes in at loose- head prop for Darren Molloy.

Wasps' tinkerings should not affect the poignancy of the proceedings, however. Richmond are 99 per cent certain to up sticks next season, either to Reading's new football stadium or along the road to the The Stoop, so those who brave the spartan surroundings of the Athletic Ground this afternoon will sample an experience increasingly common in the ever-changing landscape of English rugby. The end of an era.