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Rugby Union: Tigers turn to the understudies

CONTRARY TO popular belief, rugby politics have moved on just a little since Keith Barwell, the loose boardroom cannon from Northampton, threatened to withhold his international players from England duty midway through last season. Leicester, the Premiership pacesetters, not only travel to Wasps tomorrow without eight first-choice players, but they do so without a whiff of complaint from Dean Richards, their admirably stoical coach.

In descending numerical order, the Tigers have been shorn of Will Greenwood, Austin Healey, Martin Corry, Neil Back, Martin Johnson, Darren Garforth, Richard Cockerill and Graham Rowntree, all on World Cup duty for England against the Netherlands.

"It's the price we must pay for having top-quality players in top-quality nick," said Richards, who might have been slightly more inclined to eject a toy or two from the nearest pram had a number of second-stringers not already made striking progress this term.

Jon Stuart and Jim Overend may not attract much in the way of fan mail, but they have proved themselves a more than capable midfield combination in the absence of Greenwood, Pat Howard and Stuart Potter. Derek Jelley has been filling in for Rowntree all season, Neil Fletcher has successfully smoothed over the cracks opened up by Fritz van Heerden's injury problems and Jamie Hamilton is a perfectly adequate, if slightly quieter, fill- in for Healey at scrum-half.

Nevertheless, Loftus Road is an awkward venue at the best of times; the Tigers lost there only last April, despite outscoring the Londoners by two tries to one. If Leicester sneak out of Shepherd's Bush with any sort of result this time around, they will set their own title credentials in a mixer-full of concrete.

Ironically enough, Barwell's in-form Northampton face a similarly stiff test of resolve at Newcastle tomorrow, especially as the Falcons are now back on familiar Kingston Park territory following their sudden rejection of the Gateshead option. The Saints have lost both half-backs, Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson, to the national cause, not to mention Nick Beal and Tim Rodber, who are bench-bound at Huddersfield, and Budge Pountney, who turns out for Scotland against the Maoris.

Meanwhile, Roger Pickering, the tournament director of the European Cup, has instigated disciplinary proceedings against Franck Tournaire, the French international prop from Toulouse, following an explosive finale to last week's match at Ebbw Vale. Pickering is citing Tournaire for alleged threatening behaviour towards a touch-judge.