Rugby Union: Leicester face examination by Irish imagination

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THE BIG Premiership rumble of the season has arrived five weeks early. Until very recently, this campaign was all about next month's tete- a-tete between Northampton and Leicester at Franklins Gardens; a raw slab of East Midlands tribalism that appeared to represent the Saints' one realistic chance of reeling in the long-time title favourites from the wrong side of the county line. No one gave a second thought to London Irish. Or a third thought, or a fourth.

Since when, everyone in rugby has started thinking - and talking - about the Irish. They have gatecrashed the mind's eye with the quicksilver imagination of their attacking play and selfless deeds of defensive derring-do. With Dick Best at the helm, Steve Bachop at the fulcrum and Conor O'Shea in his pomp, they have won nine of their last 10 league matches going into this afternoon's near-16,000 sell-out at Welford Road. It is almost as breathtaking to watch these Exiles as it must be to play for them.

All of which probably explains why Best, crafty old fox that he is, wants to dampen expectation rather than inflame it. "Leicester have no weaknesses," he mused yesterday. "They have seven internationals in their pack and their defence has conceded far fewer points than anyone else. They will probably be worthy champions." The coach rarely reveals his entire hand and he is not wholly unfamiliar with the black arts of kidology, but on this occasion he was being deadly serious.

Not least because Best has three of his form players - Nick Burrows, Kieron Dawson and Malcolm O'Kelly - on the treatment table. Although he can reintroduce the muscular Robert Todd to his midfield, employ Ryan Strudwick's all-purpose virtuosity in the second row and recall Isaac Fea'unati to a back row also boasting Jake Boer and Rob Gallacher, Welford Road is not the place to attempt victory with a side short of optimum clout.

"Leicester are the final barrier," agreed Best. "If we lose, they go eight points clear of us and it almost becomes a one-horse race."

Not that Dean Richards, whose own England career owed something to Best's guidance during the early years of this decade, was taken in for a moment. "Dick has done exceptionally well in moulding a new London Irish team," he pointed out. "That's a mark of Dick's talents as a coach and also says something about the quality of the men he has brought in." Deano named no names, but the words Bachop, Boer, Brendan Venter and Kevin Putt, that inspirational little scrum-half from New Zealand via Natal, would have been close to his lips.

Leicester go in, yet again, without their most gifted three-quarter, Will Greenwood. Indeed, there is deep concern over the chronic groin problems that continue to prevent him doing anything more active than taking forlorn strolls around Welford Road.

Greenwood has played only five matches, one of them as a replacement, for his club this term and the Tigers top brass, and by extension the England management, are now fearful that the 26-year-old centre is suffering from the same condition that once sidelined Jeremy Guscott, his putative World Cup partner, for a season.

Down in the West Country at Gloucester, Kingsholm will be in mourning at the news of Will Carling's withdrawal from the Harlequins squad for today's mid-table contest. The Shed regulars had been preparing a torrent of verbal vitriol, but a minor leg strain keeps England's former captain safely out of range. More to the point, perhaps, Dan Luger has been forced to vacate his left-wing berth with a similar problem.

Wasps, who plunged Bath into another mini-crisis by sticking 35 unanswered points on them last Sunday, give Kenny Logan an immediate recall to the left wing for the match at Bedford. Victory would cement the Londoners' place in the top six, which may well be the cut-off point for any European Cup qualification.