Johnson rejects Andrew

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Another big fish has declined to swim in Newcastle's pond. The Leicester lock Martin Johnson has rejected a substantial offer from his erstwhile England colleague Rob Andrew, preferring, like clubmate Rory Underwood, to remain in the Tigers' den.

To add worry to Newcastle woe, the National Clubs Association have deferred until 10 December its decision on whether there should be releagtion from Divisions Two and Three, following the RFU commission proposal to compress the current four Courage League divisions into three. The Second Division would be increased to 14 clubs from its present 10. That would take the pressure off Andrew's men, but Alwynne Evans, chief executive of the NCA, said yesterday: "There is a feeling that there ought to be relegation, as a principle, but that may not be logical. Newcastle will just have to wait."

There are some notable absentees in the latest round of League matches. England captain Will Carling is resting his ricked neck, missing Harlequins match at home to Orrell; leaders Bath (at home to West Hartlepool) are without international fly-half Mike Catt because of his bruised ankle. Recalled England flanker Andy Robinson is also taking a rest as is Bath prop Victor Ubogu.

Wasps have given Damian Hopley a break prior to his home debut for England and their opponents Bristol have done the same for the England debutant hooker, Mark Regan. Second-placed Leicester have captain Dean Richards back after a calf injury for their visit to Saracens, but Johnson sits this one out. Strugglers Gloucester, at Sale, have made 10 changes and give league debuts to four players.

Ireland squad calls have again taken their toll throughout the league programme with runaway Division Two leaders Northampton having to do without centre Jonathan Bell when they take on London Irish. The Exiles have Garry Halpin back after his decision to opt out of internationals for the season and they have also obtained special dispensation for full- back Conor O'Shea to skip the get-together.