Bath seek home comforts at Kingsholm

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The Independent Online

It might, under different circumstances, have been the perfect finale: a Premiership title shoot-out at Kingsholm between Gloucester, front-runners all season and proud owners of a golden generation of home-developed backs, and Bath, who have been playing the rugby of the gods just lately. A few seasons ago, the Castle Grim fanzine celebrated derby day with a front-page message for the visiting supporters. "A warm welcome to our friends from the arsehole of the universe," it read. My, it's nice to feel wanted.

Unfortunately, this afternoon's sell-out game is just another staging post on the road to a big day-out at Twickenham, rather than the climactic fixture craved by the purists (who, as the International Rugby Board has made abundantly clear in recent weeks, do not count for a fat lot in the great scheme of things).

Thanks to a play-off mechanism that continues to sit uneasily with a 22-match programme of home-and-away fixtures, the most anyone can take from these proceedings is ground advantage in the semi-finals.

Not that any of the contenders would spurn such an advantage through choice. The favourites for the knock-out stage – Gloucester, Bath, Wasps and Sale – are desperately difficult to beat on their own mudheaps, so the force will be with those teams who emerge from today's business in positions one and two, rather than positions three and four.

As for positions five and six – well, that's an equally interesting story. The teams currently in these positions, Harlequins and Leicester, meet at Welford Road in a game full of feeling and meaning. Should Quins, who performed pretty well in defeat against Philippe Saint-André's immensely powerful Sale side last weekend, do a job on their opponents, they would leave the champions in serious danger of missing out on Heineken Cup qualification for next season.

This in turn would see Marcelo Loffreda, the Leicester coach, given the bum's rush without further ado, and leave Dean Richards, the Harlequins director of rugby, laughing his socks off. Richards parted company with the Tigers in bad odour five years ago – time enough for him to serve up his revenge at the chilliest of temperatures.

The Great Shambling Bear has had a decent few days already, having completed the signing of the All Black outside-half Nick Evans at the start of the week and then announced the recruitment of the outsized, outspoken Tongan wing Epi Taione, who has been playing Super 14 rugby in South Africa. A win today would guarantee Quins a place in the elite European tournament next term, and while Richards would never say so in public, he must fancy his chances.

Wasps, masters of the late surge up the rails, cannot finish top, but second is not out of the question by any means, especially as they are likely to put a bucketload of points past relegated Leeds. A clear-cut victory either way at Kingsholm could give them the opening they seek, and if they end up playing their last-four tie at High Wycombe, few will bet against them making the final for the fourth time in six years.

Sale, on the other hand, must concentrate on securing the last of the qualifying spots. Given that they have approximately 100 per cent more motivation than London Irish, their opponents at Edgeley Park, the victory they require should not be in doubt, but the Exiles, to their credit, are fielding something close to a full-strength team and are perfectly capable of playing some cutting-edge rugby if they survive the bruising that will inevitably come their way in the first 20 minutes.

Bruises will be the currency for the entire 80 at Kingsholm. Until Gloucester's unexpected victory at Wasps last weekend, there was a suspicion that they had gone all soft on their wonderful supporters at the very worst time of year, and that Bath would start as favourites. Suddenly, it is possible to read the runes differently. Certainly, Dean Ryan, who doesn't do "soft", feels the game is there to be won.

"Our victory over Wasps does not mean we have solved everything," he said, perhaps reflecting on the big-match failure against Munster in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup. "But we made a statement, and it is important that we back it up. We want to finishtop because to achieve that over a nine-month season would mean a huge amount to us."

Five seasons back, they won the league by 15 points, but lost the final to Wasps. A year ago, they were top of the log again, yet were mashed by Leicester when the trophy was up for grabs. It is not always wise to argue with Ryan, but do they really want to finish first this time?

Today's Premiership team news

*Gloucester (1st) v Bath (2nd)

England wing Lesley Vainikolo is fit while Iain Balshaw switches to full-back. Bath full-back Nick Abendanon is rested, so Joe Maddock moves in from the wing.

*Leeds Carnegie (12) v Wasps (3)

Bath-bound captain Stuart Hooper bids farewell to Leeds. England fly-half Danny Cipriani is on the bench for Wasps. Captain Lawrence Dallaglio returns.

*Leicester (6) v Harlequins (5)

Leicester recall Johne Murphy on the wing. Prop Boris Stankovich, hooker Mefin Davies and flanker Ben Herring start. For Quins, David Strettle lines up at outside centre.

*Sale (4) v London Irish (7)

Sale's Lionel Faure is in for Andrew Sheridan and Neil Briggs replaces Sébastien Bruno. Centre Shane Geraghty returns for Irish.

*Saracens (8) v Bristol (9)

The England World Cup winner Richard Hill makes his final Saracens appearance. Noah Cato makes a rare start. The No 8 Dan Ward-Smith captains Bristol.

*Worcester (11) v Newcastle (10)

The prop Tony Windo makes his final appearance at Sixways before retiring. A hip injury could deny Mathew Tait his last runout for Newcastle.

David Llewellyn

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