Rugby Union: Inseparable teams ready to renew hostilities

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IT IS just about possible to insert a cigarette paper between Saracens and Leicester, the classiest and most complete acts in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, but you would need X-ray vision and a steady hand to locate the gap, writes Chris Hewett.

The two sides met on three occasions last season but despite knocking lumps from each other in triplicate, they remained inseparable: a one- point win to the Londoners, a one-point victory to the Midlanders and a 10-10 draw. There is currently no closer rivalry in English rugby.

Such is the intensity of that rivalry that the best part of 19,000 supporters are expected to forego their Sunday tucker and sardine their way into Vicarage Road tomorrow. "After all the off-field problems, it's a chance to kick-start the season," beamed Mike Scott, the Saracens team manager. "This is what it's all about."

It is tempting to cast Saracens as favourites, even though Leicester, uniquely, know what it is to win at Watford. Jeremy Thomson and Alain Penaud have proved astonishingly resourceful in replacing Philippe Sella and Michael Lynagh in the Londoners' midfield, Francois Pienaar is fit again after a prolonged bout of knee trouble - the player-coach has named himself among the replacements - and Paddy Johns, the Irish Test lock, returns to apply some hairy-fisted Ulster grit to the tight exchanges. Formidable indeed.

Given a full hand of internationals, Leicester can live quite happily at Saracens altitude. However, they have a whole raft of injury problems - Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree, Fritz van Heerden and Neil Back are all giving cause for concern - and that temporary fragility may just tilt the balance towards the Tetley's Bitter Cup holders.

Bath, who expect another large crowd at the Recreation Ground as well as a stiff examination from Dick Best's new-look London Irish, yesterday dismissed reports that they were planning to up sticks and decamp to Swindon Town's County Ground at the end of the season.

Bath may play a one-off match with London Scottish there on 15 May - under the terms of the rent agreement with Bath city council, the Rec is out of bounds from the end of April - but the prospects of a permanent ground share with the Wiltshire football club are remote.

Tony Swift, the Bath chief executive, freely admits that planning restrictions at the Rec are continuing to frustrate the club's attempts to expand the current capacity of 8,200. "We will have to consider alternatives if no solution is found and those alternatives include the building of a new stadium," he said. "However, we remain committed to playing our rugby in Bath."

Northampton, who continue to impress more readily on paper than on grass, go into this evening's televised match at London Scottish without their captain, Tim Rodber. The Lions No 8, left out of Clive Woodward's 26-man England party for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers, has hamstring trouble and relinquishes the reins to his scrum-half, Matt Dawson.

Wasps, meanwhile, give the rejuvenated Alex King his first Premiership start of the season at Newcastle tomorrow. The gifted outside-half was the key influence in last weekend's valuable victory at Gloucester and he deservedly gets the nod. Josh Lewsey drops to full-back to cover for the injured Jon Ufton.

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