Rugby: Kingsholm a merry hell for the Irish

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IT IS A hard life for a rugby player in this professional era. And whatever else the next few days are for the rest of the country, for rugby players festive they are not, not when most face three games in the space of a week or so.

Indeed Bath, owing to their rearranged Heineken Cup Pool Two match against Swansea, will almost certainly have to play nine matches in the next month.

This afternoon, Kingsholm will offer anything but goodwill to London Irish as leaders Gloucester attempt to consolidate their position. Byron Hayward makes his home debut at full-back, thus permitting Terry Fanolua to return to his more accustomed role in the centre alongside Chris Yates.

But the Irish make five changes, which see several key personnel returning to action, most notably fly-half Stephen Bachop, who links up again with scrum-half Kevin Putt. Right wing Jarrod Cunningham also returns, as does Ireland international wing Justin Bishop, who will be at outside centre. In the pack Ryan Strudwick takes over at No 8.

Gloucester are buoyant on the back of five successive Allied Dunbar Premiership victories - they last lost in early October, to Bath - but Saracens, in third place, will also be confident for their visit to Bristol tomorrow. Their last Premiership outing was a victory over Leicester and the win over Pontypridd in the Heineken Cup last week will also have lifted the squad.

Second-placed Northampton are likely to keep up the pressure on Gloucester, since their visitors today are Newcastle. Rob Andrew, who has been busy solving the game's wider problems, has plenty closer to home, with the Falcons still without a league win. The two points which keep them hovering above Bedford are courtesy of a couple of drawn matches. What Newcastle have to do is draw encouragement instead, from their record in the European Shield - in which they are unbeaten. The good news is that Scotland captain and scrum-half Gary Armstrong is back from a broken collarbone.

The bad news is that the Saints welcome back Grant Seely to their back row, as well as Scotland international prop Matt Stewart and giant lock Richard Metcalfe.

Fourth-placed Bath and fifth-placed Leicester slug it out at the Recreation Ground. Leicester are still without their captain Martin Johnson, whose Achilles tendon injury has suddenly become a medium to long-term problem. Johnson's England colleagues Leon Lloyd and Darren Garforth are also still out of action, but hooker Richard Cockerill is fit enough to mount a challenge to win back his first team place.

As for Bedford, Alistair Murdoch, their player-coach, who scored two tries for Scotland A earlier in the week, turns out at Sale for the first time since breaking his collarbone in September and two recent signings, hooker Chris Pearson and fly-half Andrew Thompson make their debuts.