Rugby Union: Perry's promise of revenge has Wasps on alert

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THIS YEAR'S Heineken Cup is barely up and running, but one or two Premiership big-hitters are already feeling a little itchy about next season's competition, writes Chris Hewett. Take Wasps, for example. Lawrence Dallaglio's men are doing very nicely, thank you, in Europe, with a convincing home victory over Llanelli and a precious result in Ulster safely tucked away in the bottom of the captain's kitbag. Yet in purely domestic terms they are waist-deep in the quicksand and sinking fast.

Which explains why Nigel Melville, the Londoners' director of rugby, has spent the last week feeling unusually anxious about tomorrow's meeting with Bath, the early championship leaders, at Loftus Road. "It's a massive game for us," he acknowledged yesterday, acutely aware that his side are third from bottom and far away from the qualifying zone for European elite status in 2000-2001. Only four English sides are guaranteed a place in next season's Heineken Cup and, as things stand, Wasps are six points off the pace.

It would not be so bad if the pace-setters looked likely to blow themselves out, but Bath are beginning to rediscover some of their old swagger, while Gloucester, second only on points difference, appear to have pieced together their strongest unit for a decade or more. Then come the traditional heavies - Leicester, Northampton and Saracens - and Bristol, whose sheer physical clout makes them heavies of a different kind. In short, this is the most competitive Premiership since the Allied Dunbar executives wrote out their multi-million pound sponsorship cheque in 1997. Playing catch-up will be very hard to do.

To make matters worse for Wasps, their West Country opponents will field two of their World Cup players, Matt Perry and Phil de Glanville, for the first time since England made their costly tactical faux pas against the Springboks in Paris in October. Perry returns at full-back after hamstring trouble while De Glanville resumes as inside centre and captain after twisting an ankle three weeks ago. "There is a real sense of unity about Bath at the moment," said Perry. "Things have tightened up. The spirit is good, the technical side of our game has improved and, anyway, we have a point to prove at Wasps after going down 35-0 at Loftus Road last season."

Paul Grayson will break a 32-year Northampton record if he picks up 12 points or more at Bedford this afternoon. The Saints' outside-half is within four penalties' worth of Roger Hosen's best of 1,466 points, set in 1967. Interestingly, Grayson has amassed 1,455 points in just six seasons at Franklin's Gardens, whereas Hosen took double that amount of time.

Meanwhile, Leicester must again tackle a must-win match without two members of the ABC club when they face Saracens at Vicarage Road tomorrow. Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth are still struggling with neck injuries, although connoisseurs of Cockerill the best-selling author suspect he is really suffering from writer's cramp. That would, at least, explain some of his line-out throwing.