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.
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