Rugby Union: Sarries stiffen up the roster

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THE PACE of change at Gloucester over the course of a rugged century may have made the average glacier look like Michael Schumacher, but four short years of professionalism have rendered the Cherry and Whites almost unrecognisable. Yet another Kingsholm favourite, Mark Mapletoft, quit the club yesterday, following in the recent footsteps of fellow England internationals Phil Greening, Scott Benton and Dave Sims.

Mapletoft will play at Saracens next season. Every bit as importantly from his point of view, he will play at outside-half.

Philippe Saint-Andre, the Gloucester coach, saw Mapletoft as a full- back, but the player saw things very differently. "Gloucester made it clear at the end of last season that they wanted me to switch, but I felt my best position was stand-off," said the 27-year-old goal-kicker yesterday. "As a result, they told me it would be better for both myself and the club if I moved on. Saracens have given me the chance to carry on with my career and with so many world-class players at Vicarage Road, many of whom I know through the England set-up, it's an exciting opportunity."

Mapletoft has no guarantee of first-team rugby at Saracens - Thierry Lacroix, the former French international outside-half, has just moved in from Harlequins - but, by the same yardstick, he was not certain of top-flight activity at Kingsholm. Saint-Andre has made it clear that Simon Mannix is his preferred stand-off and he also has Chris Catling, the England A full-back, on his staff.

Saracens declared three further signings of lower profile yesterday. Nick Walshe, an ex-Harlequin like Lacroix, will understudy Kyran Bracken at scrum-half, while the front row ranks have been reinforced by Robbie Russell, an Australian-born Scottish hooker, and Julian White, a 26-year- old Welsh prop with New Zealand provincial experience.

Pontypridd have lost their fight to retain the services of Dafydd James. The Welsh international wing rejected overtures from Cardiff, Swansea and a posse of English Premiership clubs in favour of a two-year deal with Llanelli.