Rugby Union: Newcastle's title credentials on the line as they enter Leicester's lair

It is the kind of rugby match that the men with the big pockets dream would happen every week - a guaranteed full-house fixture with the added frisson of old kings of the hill facing the pretenders.

The financial problems affecting the game will be temporarily forgotten as Newcastle enter the heartland of rugby at Welford Road tonight where Leicester's Tigers have been sharpening their claws ever since they ended Saracens' unbeaten record in the Allied Dunbar Premiership on Boxing Day.

The northern upstarts settled into Saracens' top spot with a thumping 50-8 win at Bristol on Saturday but third-placed Leicester are intent on knocking them down a peg or two.

Rob Andrew, Newcastle's rugby director, concedes that a win would impress the rest of the Premiership.

"It is the biggest test of our championship credentials so far," he said. "If we win we can face any challenge with increased confidence.

"But we have not even played one third of our Premiership fixtures. We have given ourselves no more than a solid platform. The league is not won here. It will be won in April or May, and we want to be still at the top when the music stops."

Two of the side who beat Saracens will not be on the Leicester song-sheet. Graham Rowntree and Leon Lloyd have not recovered from arm and shoulder injuries respectively, so Perry Freshwater comes in at prop and Craig Joiner takes over on the left wing.

For Newcastle, the full-back Tim Stimpson and Tony Underwood are back from injuries, and the wing John Bentley, recently out of favour, is also be available for selection.

Bath are also determined to put a newly promoted rich club in their place, although they are still below half-way and six points adrift of Newcastle.

As he prepared his team to host Northampton, the Bath coach, Andy Robinson, said: "We have got to win a run of three league games - against Sale, Northampton and Richmond - and we started well with the win at Sale on Saturday.

"Again we ground out a narrow success, and that was reminiscent of the old Bath. But we have not hit top gear yet and are looking for a bit of style as we build towards the European Cup final."

Bath face a kicker in supreme form in Northampton's Paul Grayson. His goals have brought him 68 points out of 93 and Bath know that if they are in one of their penalty-conceding modes they will suffer.

Saracens, who expect to get back on track at lowly London Irish, rest lock Paddy Johns and bring in another international in Wales' Tony Copsey. Irish changes may be confined to a slight tinkering with their starting line-up.

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