Rugby Union: European hopefuls trying to escape gridlock

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The Independent Online
The top flight of the Courage League has resembled a bad day on the M1 all season, with seven clubs - eight if you include the resurgent Gloucester - caught in the snarl-up for European Cup places, writes Chris Hewett. Today, the congestion could worsen considerably.

Harlequins, Sale, Saracens and Northampton pair off against each other this afternoon while Gloucester, with six league victories on the bounce, can virtually bank on a seventh against relegation certainties Orrell at Kingsholm. By this evening, the First Division prognosis is likely to be as clear as mud.

The most intriguing encounter is at Franklins Gardens where Northampton, no great shakes away from home but a very serious proposition indeed in their own backyard, face Sarries - Philippe Sella, Francois Pienaar, Michael Lynagh and all. Well, almost all; the Londoners travel without Paddy Johns, their in-form Irish international lock, who is suffering from a chest infection.

"It's a definite blow," admitted Mark Evans, their coach, yesterday. "Paddy has turned in some fantastic stuff for us this season, both as a tight forward and in terms of his work-rate around the pitch. He is playing the best rugby of his career since switching from the back row to the second row. He is now a Test-class lock."

Johns' absence means a chance for the inexperienced Craig Yandell alongside Tony Copsey. Their task is eased, in theory, by the continued absence of Martin Bayfield, the Lions lock, who is hoping to make further strides towards completing his recovery from a chronic groin condition by turning out for the Saints' second string.

"This is a big game, even bigger than usual," Evans said. "What we badly need is a significant win on the road. If we could manage that at Franklins Gardens, it would work wonders for confidence."

Fourth place meets fifth at The Stoop, with Harlequins looking to put their own title challenge back on track with victory over Sale - no foregone conclusion, given the Cheshire side's renowned habit of turning over more fancied outfits when least expected to do so. "I look on Sale as the dark destroyers," Dick Best, director of rugby at Quins, said.

"If we get back in the title shake-up, I will watch with interest Sale's influence on the run-in because their last three games are against the three teams above us, Wasps, Bath and Leicester." Now that the New Zealander John Mitchell has hardened up Sale both physically and psychologically, Best is fully justified in sounding the alarm.

Wasps, who have a game in hand over the leaders, Leicester, will go top tonight if, as expected, they see off West Hartlepool at Brierton Lane.