Dawson fit for his last hurrah

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Dawson has not played since damaging ankle ligaments during the match with Saracens a month ago. As he had already stated his intention to pack it in at the end of the campaign, it was widely assumed the scrum-half had run his race at last. Not so. Yesterday, the Wasps director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, announced that Dawson would begin the game at Edgeley Park ahead of his Irish understudy Eoin Reddan, who played well enough to be Dawson's overstudy in the weeks following the Six Nations Championship.

Alex King is also back in the starting line-up, having played second fiddle to another Irishman, Jeremy Staunton, since recovering from injuries to thumb and wrist. With last season's senior half-back partnership in harness, the Londoners feel they have what it takes to perform their party piece for the fourth year in succession by beating the team that ended the 22-match regular season on top of the pile.

A revamp of the play-off structure means Wasps cannot win the title in Stockport tomorrow, but victory over Sale would make them the hottest of favourites to complete the job at Twickenham in a fortnight. They have a predatory look about them. Having survived the fires of hell at Kingsholm last weekend, they have retained their pack en bloc - Joe Ward, outstanding at hooker against Gloucester, gets the nod over Raphael Ibañez - while addressing their decision-making outside the scrum.

Sale prefer Oriol Ripol to Steve Hanley on the left wing, Lionel Fauré to Ben Coutts at loose-head prop, Andy Titterrell to Sébastien Bruno at hooker and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe to Dean Schofield at lock.

It will be a shuddering affair. Sale's ultra-physical victory over Wasps under floodlights last October was the outstanding Premiership game of the season until the recent outbreaks of mesmerising free-spiritedness from the likes of London Irish and Gloucester. More of the same can be expected.

Irish have been central to events these last few weeks, and travel to face Leicester in tomorrow's second semi-final with "quiet confidence", to quote their director of rugby, Brian Smith. Mike Catt, very much the catalyst at inside centre, is back in midfield after missing last weekend's victory over Saracens, while Olivier Magne, that thoroughbred flanker from France, returns to the pack.

Leicester still pride themselves on home-ground dependability and are at full strength, with the exception of the suspended lock Louis Deacon. But if Catt and the equally creative Riki Flutey can find ways of releasing the fastest back three in English rugby - Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau - there will be all manner of fun and games.

It is even possible that taken together, the two ties will persuade the doubters that the play-off system is a joy, rather than a disgrace. There again, Sale might fail to make the final, in which case Jason Robinson will spontaneously combust and the right-thinking members of the rugby fraternity will cry "scandal".

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