Rugby Union: Pienaar planning hero's return

FRANCOIS PIENAAR rejoices in his well-earned reputation as a big game performer and, true to form, Saracens' player-coach intends to resume his love affair with an adoring Watford public by returning to Premiership action in the biggest game of the season so far. Assuming he survives a second team run-out against Wasps next Tuesday, he will include himself in the squad to face Leicester at Vicarage Road five days later.

South Africa's World Cup-winning captain, sidelined since undergoing minor knee surgery during the summer, is guaranteed a Springbok-sized welcome. Saracens confidently expect a crowd of 16,000 plus for their set-to with Martin Johnson's pacesetting Tigers, a sure sign of the growing discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of the Premiership.

The big boys are doing quite nicely, thank you; Leicester's average gate is up around the 13,000 mark while Sarries, Richmond, Bath and Gloucester also report encouraging levels of interest. Sadly, business is nowhere near as brisk elsewhere. London Scottish, West Hartlepool, Sale and, alarmingly for Chris Wright and his bank account, Wasps, are pulling in less than 3,000 a time. There are growing indications that Wright is thinking long and hard about the financial viability of keeping the 1997 champions at Loftus Road.

Bedford, another top flight club struggling to stay afloat in a sea of economic hardship, were sending out more upbeat signals yesterday. Officials refused to divulge details of Tuesday's meeting between Frank Warren, the owner, and Geoff Cooke, a transparently unsettled chief executive - indeed, they declined to discuss any internal matters whatsoever - but Rudi Straeuli and his charges were hopeful that, unlike last month, their salary cheques would be paid on time.

Ironically, given his inspirational performance against Leicester at Goldington Road on Saturday, Straeuli has stepped down from the side for the weekend visit to Bath. Problems at scrum-half have prompted a recall for the New Zealander Simon Crabb and with Alistair Murdoch, an Australian, well nigh undroppable in midfield, the overseas player slots are used up. James Cockle, once on Bath's books as a promising loose forward, replaces Straeuli at No 8.

Overseas registration rules are a thing of the past for Patricio Noriega, however. The 26-year-old Argentinian prop, one of the great modern day scrummagers and an undoubted star of the last World Cup, has completed a three-year residency in Australia and will almost certainly visit England and France with the Wallabies in November.

Noriega was capped 22 times by the Pumas before settling in Canberra and agreeing Super 12 terms with the ACT Brumbies. In the likely event of his forcing a place in the Australian Test side - Rod Macqueen, the national coach, welcomed him on board yesterday by describing him as "unique" - he will emulate another supreme Argentinian prop, Enrique Rodriguez, who anchored the Wallaby scrum during their Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland in 1984.

Meanwhile, Macqueen has persuaded the Wallaby captain, John Eales, to sit out the forthcoming domestic interstate series involving the Brumbies, the Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs. Eales will rest up before leading his country on the short tour of Europe and said yesterday: "The Test against England will be totally different to the one we played in Brisbane in June, when we won 76-0. They've brought back their big names and that will make it hard." Well, harder at least.