Rugby League: Sampson's happy return

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CASTLEFORD HAVE their inspirational prop Dean Sampson back today as they try to achieve what they have never managed in Super League by winning at the Don Valley Stadium.

Cas need to beat Sheffield if they are to keep the pressure on Gateshead for fifth place and a place in the play-offs, so the return of Sampson, after a week off to rest a niggling groin injury, is well-timed. Paul Smith drops to the bench, while James Pickering and Ian Tonks are still absent from a side that, nevertheless, looks strong enough to break their Don Valley hoodoo.

Sheffield, with a good win at Halifax last week to boost their confidence, do have a bigger squad than usual to select from. The return of Simon Baldwin from injury and Karl Lovell from suspension gives John Kear the unaccustomed problem of who to leave out.

In today's other game, Salford, still not clear of relegation, visit London, who will give fitness tests to Chris Ryan, Peter Gill and, most crucially on this season's outstanding form, Karle Hammond.

Gateshead's coach, Shaun McRae, has said that victory at Bradford tomorrow would complete the best week in the club's short existence. Adding the scalp of the Super League leaders to those of Wigan and Hull (who have signed Ian Pickavance from Huddersfield in time to make his debut), would more than justify that description, but there must be a fear that the Thunder will hit a wall at Odsal.

What should have been a compelling contest could be ruined by weariness as Gateshead play their third game in a week. On the other hand, McRae has marshalled his limited resources carefully, with his first-choice props, Danny Lee and Luke Flesch, rested at The Boulevard and Ian Herron, Steve Collins and Andrew Hick all expected to return.

Bradford have a fully-fit squad to select from, with the exception of Jeremy Donougher's thigh injury. Robbie Paul's return after a foot ligament injury is described by the club as imminent.

Two other games tomorrow have an important bearing on last place. Hull, the occupants for longer than they care to remember, can step up if they beat Halifax. That is far from impossible, given Halifax's own internal turmoil, but Hull, too, could be badly affected by playing in midweek.

A Hull win would leave Huddersfield, surely in line for another heavy defeat by Wigan, at the bottom of the table. They are without Bobbie Goulding for the season, while Wigan restore Greg Florimo to the starting line- up and leave Lee Gilmour and Jon Clarke out of their 17.

Second-placed St Helens are at home to Wakefield and have Paul Newlove back on duty to help maintain their push.

The Rugby League has imposed pounds 2,500 fines, part of them suspended, on York and Hemel Hempstead. following a brawl in their Academy fixture last month which resulted in seven players being banned, one of them until September 2000.