The paranoia starts here. Until last weekend, connoisseurs of relegation neurosis saw tonight's Sale-Newcastle dust-up at Edgeley Park – make that Edgeley Beach, given the ridiculously lopsided sand-grass ratio – as little more than a bottom-of-the-card bout ahead of the main event on Sunday, when Leeds meet Worcester at Headingley. Then Leeds punched above their weight to win at London Irish, thereby leaving all four clubs wondering where they might be playing their rugby next season.
Sale are only five points off the bottom, with Newcastle a single point further on. Neither can countenance defeat this evening, especially as Worcester, the current favourites to take the drop, have it in them to win at Leeds, and again at home to Gloucester in the final round of matches a fortnight tomorrow. There are no easy run-ins at this stage of a relegation contest, but it can certainly be argued that Worcester's is the least difficult.
"We all understand the nature of the challenge this game represents," said Kingsley Jones, the Sale director of rugby, yesterday. "There is a lot riding on this: for us, it is about winning and safety. We have to be really positive about this because if we lose, we face going to Harlequins on 8 May needing a result. Nobody wants that."
His opposite number on Tyneside could be heard singing from a very similar hymn sheet, in between his prayers for deliverance. "A win will ensure our Premiership survival so it's vital that we attack this game," said Steve Bates. "Regardless of the various permutations, our fate is still very much in our hands. My players have looked sharp in training all week and they're excited about the challenge of what could be a massive night for the club."
Jones has selected the occasional England scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth ahead of the more celebrated Wales and Lions half-back Dwayne Peel, and restored Lee Thomas to midfield ahead of Jonny Kennedy. Both Peel and Kennedy will be on the bench. For their part, Newcastle have their formidable All Black prop Carl Hayman in the front row after losing him to a back injury just before last week's meeting with Leicester. Rob Vickers, who also withdrew from that game, will be alongside him at hooker.
Indeed, there has been a root-and-branch reshaping of the Newcastle pack for this one. The Scottish prop Grant Shiells and the former Bath and London Irish lock James Hudson return to the tight five, while Filipo Levi, the Samoa international, starts on the blind-side flank after beginning the Leicester match among the replacements.
Wasps, threatened with a winding-up order because of unpaid taxes earlier this month, said yesterday that they had reached an agreement with HM Revenue and Customs. "We remain very confident of the future, both on and off the pitch," said their chairman, Steve Hayes. "The short and long-term prospects at the club, including the development of a new stadium, are very exciting."