Bond's return lifts Sale as Leeds make wholesale changes

A mere nine days into the new year, the next six months are already on the line for two of the English Premiership's more obvious under-performers. Sale and Leeds have Heineken Cup business to concern them this evening, in Dublin and Edinburgh respectively. While neither are anticipating great things on the road, heavy defeats would leave them in miserable shape for next weekend's return matches, when failures on home soil would effectively wreck their chances of making the knock-out stage of the most competitive club tournament in the world game.

Sale could, and should, be in rude health. They have the most explosive attacking back-line in England - Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Graeme Bond and Steve Hanley are a threatening bunch in anyone's language, especially when primed and fired by a half-back pair such as Charlie Hodgson and Bryan Redpath - but their performance levels are not quite up to the mark. This week, the ever-enthusiastic Brian Kennedy gave a chairman's vote of confidence in the coaches, Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond. They must be really worried now.

Bond's return at centre after injury guarantees a treat for connoisseurs of midfield play, for Leinster are expected to play Brian O'Driscoll in their starting line-up. O'Driscoll was the outstanding Lions centre in Australia three years ago - a tour that also propelled the dynamic Bond into the affections of his public. The former ACT Brumbies player abandoned all thought of a Wallaby career by accepting the English shilling, but his lack of international prospects does not lessen his ability. This evening's confrontation should be quite something.

Leeds, meanwhile, have made a fistful of changes to the side that capitulated so horribly at Saracens eight days ago. Gordon Ross, their international stand-off, has been relegated to the bench - Tim Walsh makes his first big-time start for the Tykes - and there is a new back-row combination, with Aaron Persico and Dan Hyde flanking Alix Popham at No 8. Diego Albanese's return to club duty means they can boast four Test players in their back division. They will need them, too, for Edinburgh are in serious danger of becoming the first Scottish team to earn themselves a Heineken quarter-final place.

Frank Hadden's team go into the game at Meadowbank, that passionless monstrosity of a rugby venue, without that most passionate of players, the former All Black captain Todd Blackadder, who is still suffering from the shoulder problem he picked up against Glasgow shortly after Christmas. Brendan Laney will lead the side, with the talented Chris Paterson back at outside-half and two other adventurous spirits, Mike Blair and Derrick Lee, at scrum-half and full-back respectively. A year ago, Blackadder's absence would have crippled the Scots. Now, they look well equipped to find a way through the thicket without him.

Stade Français, one of the favourites for the title despite their indifferent domestic form, will travel to Gwent Dragons tomorrow secure in the knowledge that their outstanding coach, Nick Mallett, will still be their coach next month. Mallett, who guided his native South Africa to 17 consecutive Test victories and third place in the 1999 World Cup before being eased out of the Springbok job in an unpleasant outbreak of personality politics, was a popular choice to return to the role following the recent departure of Rudi Straeuli, but the South African Rugby Union has resisted pressure to add him to their four-man shortlist.

Andre Markgraaff, Chester Williams, Heyneke Meyer and Dumisani Mhani are the contenders, just as they were before Christmas, when a group of high-profile Springbok rugby figures, including the former captain and manager Morné du Plessis, demanded an emergency board meeting to discuss Mallett's position, or lack of it. "I would not say the meeting was fiery," said the president of SARFU. Brian van Rooyen, yesterday. "A lot of things were said and a lot of issues debated, but there was no vote taken. It was a consensus outcome."

In Italy, the national coach John Kirwan has named a 38-man training squad for the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship. It does not include Ramiro Pez, the Leicester outside-half surprisingly omitted from the World Cup party.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage