Rugby Union: Weakened Tigers in test of title credibility

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The Independent Online
EDGY, VERY edgy. Leicester put their title credentials on the line at Northampton this afternoon and there is not the slightest guarantee that they will survive the triple-whammy awaiting them. By tradition, East Midlands derbies are fraught, mean-spirited affairs and today's little gathering will be no different. But the Premier-ship favourites go into this one with three unusually large monkeys clinging to their tiger-striped backs: they have not won at Franklin's Gardens since the Saints returned to big-league rugby in 1996, their England forwards are slap in the middle of a hugely demanding Five Nations campaign and their first-choice half-backs have disappeared from view.

Any hopes that Austin Healey might have returned to the fray after his notorious dalliance with a horizontal Kevin Putt during the Leicester- London Irish match were blown out of the water by the Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal, who this week increased the scrum-half's 21-day suspension by rather more than 100 per cent. Then came a second body-blow in the shape of Joel Stransky's knee. The former Springbok stand- off will undergo key-hole surgery next week and may well miss the bulk of the Premiership run-in.

The player-coach's absence means another outing in the No 10 shirt for Pat Howard and while the 25-year-old Australian is nobody's fool when it comes to the art of play-making, he is no Stransky either. Without their No 1 goal-kicker and organiser-in-chief, Leicester failed to subdue a pumped-up Richmond outfit in the cup a fortnight ago. Given the local rivalry and the fact that Northampton have Premiership ambitions of their own, the visitors will experience twice the degree of heat this afternoon.

It will be fascinating to see how the respective captains, Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber, approach what is certain to be a molten confrontation; after all, it was only seven days ago that they joined forces against the Irish in Dublin. "There can be no bigger club game than this in English rugby," said Rodber yesterday. "If Northampton had access to a 20,000- capacity stadium, I've no doubt there would be 20,000 people in it. This is a huge occasion and a huge challenge for us."

Whatever the outcome, the Northampton players can start digging out their passports for a European Cup adventure next season: agreement on an English return to the competition is likely to be confirmed at a European Rugby Cup board meeting on 1 April and with 26 points in the bag, Rodber and company would have to go pear-shaped to miss out. However, seven other clubs are still in with a chance of claiming the remaining places assumed to be on offer and four of them are in head-on collision this weekend.

London Irish and Wasps, respectively fourth and fifth in the table, indulge themselves in another bout of high-speed power play at Loftus Road tomorrow - their last meeting in Shepherd's Bush a fortnight ago made ice hockey look like a Terry Griffiths snooker match - and there are changes to both line-ups. Wasps are without Josh Lewsey and Rob Henderson, so Gareth Rees starts at full-back with Mark Denney filling the gap in the centre. The Irish bring Mike Howe and Kris Fullman into their front row at the expense of Richard Kirke and Rob Hardwick while Kevin Spicer gets a back row place ahead of Isaac Fea'unati.

Bath meet Richmond with a potentially dangerous side captained by Jeremy Guscott. The west country men boast a back line of Perry, Balshaw, Guscott, Maggs, Adebayo, Catt and Cooper and given that a treasured European place depends on them finding some late- season form, the 1998 Heineken Cup winners should be suitably inspired.