Irish's play-off prospects rise

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, the teams playing catch-up in the race for a Premiership semi-final spot – Gloucester and Sale – were wondering privately whether Worcester might summon the furies sufficiently to beat London Irish at Sixways this afternoon, thereby opening a door to the play-offs at the last minute. Then Worcester named their team. No Pat Sanderson or Greg Rawlinson, no Willie Walker or Marcel Garvey or Dale Rasmussen. Clearly, the Midlanders have better things to think about than doing other clubs a favour.

Namely, next weekend’s European Challenge Cup semi-final in Bourgoin, where victory could provide Worcester with the impetus they need to push on and qualify for next season’s Heineken Cup – a tournament they have yet to experience, owing to their continuing struggles at Premiership level. As Mike Ruddock, their director of rugby, has known all campaign that the Challenge Cup offers the most realistic opportunity for success, there is precious little value in flogging his best players into the ground today.

All of which makes life a good deal easier for Irish, who welcome their influential captain Bob Casey back into the engine room of the scrum after a long injury lay-off. The Exiles travel in strength, with both Armitage brothers, Delon and Steffon, on board and the impressive young wing Adam Thompstone holding his place ahead of Topsy Ojo, who must be content with a seat on the bench. They remain the most vulnerable of the four “holding” sides at the top of the table, but they are not as threatened as they might have been.

Leicester, all fine and dandy after an excellent run of six wins in seven Premiership outings, require only a losing bonus point against Bristol to progress to the knock-out stage as top seeds. Harlequins and Bath are also in a good place, with home fixtures against Newcastle and Saracens respectively, but like Irish, neither can afford to amble around. Not with semi-final venues at stake.

Gloucester, whose self-immolation fixation reached new heights when they lost to Worcester at Kingsholm on Tuesday night, need a four-try win at Wasps just to give themselves an outside chance of making the last four. Two factors stand in their way: the emotional charge coursing through a sell-out Adams Park audience, who will be intent on marking Josh Lewsey’s final club appearance in appropriate style, and a Wasps side rediscovering their best form at the very worst time of the season – that is to say, with the chance of a semi-final slot already gone.

The West Countrymen are struggling for bodies, yet Olly Barkley, an international-class midfielder with a kicking game to die for, is still down among the replacements.

The Munster and Ireland scrum-half Tomas O’Leary looks set to miss the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa after suffering a suspected broken ankle just 10 minutes into his side’s 29-10 Magners League victory over the Scarlets at Musgrave Park last night.