Rugby Union: Happy return for Pienaar

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MARTIN JOHNSON is expecting the stuttering rugby season to swing into full gear when he takes his Leicester side to Saracens in a meeting of the only two unbeaten Allied Dunbar Premiership teams.

"Our four wins have all been against teams in the bottom half of the League," he said. "If we had already beaten the likes of Wasps, Newcastle and Bath we would be ecstatic. But we are hitting a class act now and if we can come away with the points we will really rate ourselves."

The Tigers have three key forwards - Neil Back, Graham Rowntree and Fritz van Heerden - facing fitness tests, while Saracens will still lack Francois Pienaar, their player-coach, from their starting line-up, although he is on the bench after surviving his first action of the season in a second- team midweek match.

Pienaar said: "It was tough coming through that and I cannot claim to be as fit and as fast as the rest. It will be some time before I start equalling the speed of the others. They have had a month's start and I have been recovering from this knee operation. It would not have been fair to choose myself now. We have this rule that form and fitness are the only criteria, and the younger players would expect me to be subject to that. It has been frustrating, because I am still a player first and a coach next."

Today's other big match in the Premiership is at Gates- head, where the champions, Newcastle, host the team they succeeded, Wasps. Newcastle did not lose until March in their title campaign. Last season only Saracens, Wasps and Richmond beat them, but already this term Richmond and London Irish have done the trick as the champions have struggled to find their form. The Newcastle coach Steve Bates said: "We have had the hardest start of the big teams."

Up in Scotland, the Edinburgh Reivers have the toughest of European Cup tasks, when they face the tournament favourites, Toulouse, at Easter Road. After salvaging a 38-38 draw in Ulster with a last-gasp drop goal and disposing of Ebbw Vale 41-17 last time out, the Reivers are at least confident for the clash with the powerful and pacey French outfit.

The game will be particularly significant for the centre Graham Shiel, a late addition to the Scotland squad's first get- together of the season last weekend. Today represents another chance for Shiel, who is keeping the likes of the Lions back Alan Tait out of the side, to remind the national selectors of what they have been missing over the last three years of an injury-dogged career.