Key sounds a rallying call as Leeds' survival battle begins

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The Independent Online

The fightback starts this afternoon. It should have started six days ago, but Leeds, bottom of the Premiership with a record of failure striking in its symmetrical beauty – nine games, nine defeats – were denied a shot at their target team, Newcastle, because of the snow, ice, fog and general climactic carnage that brought northern England to a standstill. That fixture may still prove pivotal, but for now the Yorkshiremen must throw everything they have in the direction of Gloucester.

"Not having a game can be a positive and a negative," said Andy Key, the director of rugby, as he weighed the prospects for today's game at Headingley. "Given where we are at the moment, the Newcastle postponement was probably more of a negative. We were on a high after two really good performances in Europe, the guys were ready for it and they wanted to play. Sportsmen give up a lot over Christmas and the worst thing that happens is you find the game being called off. There again, we haven't picked up any fresh injuries and we've had a few extra days of preparation."

If the second half of 2010 was gruesome for Leeds, they are a mere seven points behind Newcastle. All is not lost, and Key knows it. "We have to start 2011 better than we ended 2010, and every player and member of staff is working to ensure we survive," he said. "There will be the odd blip, but I think the character of the team is stronger and better able to deal with it. Anybody coming down to the Gloucester game will see a very different Leeds side."

They have their two England forwards, the hooker Steve Thompson and the flanker Hendre Fourie, in the starting line-up for the first time since October, while the former Wasps scrum-half Warren Fury starts ahead of Scott Mathie. Gloucester have selected the gifted youngster Freddie Burns at outside-half, but will not field England lock Dave Attwood, who has been banned for a fortnight following an internal disciplinary hearing arising from a stamping incident during the Amlin Challenge Cup defeat by La Rochelle that left the Romanian prop Petrisor Toderasc with serious facial injuries. Attwood faces a European Rugby Cup tribunal in Dublin on Thursday.

Gavin Henson's first start for Saracens at Sale tomorrow afternoon could well come to be seen as a transitional moment for the Watford-based club. With Alex Goode returning at full-back and Owen Farrell growing in authority at outside-half, Brendan Venter's side are piecing together a back division that will soon be the equal of anything in the country. Sale, third from bottom, at least have Charlie Hodgson and Andrew Sheridan available to them. Interestingly, they have picked another of their recently crocked individuals, James Gaskell, on the blind-side flank rather than at lock.

Today's London Irish-Bath contest at the Madejski Stadium has all the makings of an 80-minute exercise in collective neurosis. The Exiles have lost their past eight matches; the West Countrymen have not won a game worth winning since September. The visitors have Luke Watson, the multifaceted South African loose forward, back in the pack and will continue to run Olly Barkley out of position at outside centre. As for Irish, the decision to leave the Samoan midfielder Seilala Mapusua on the bench will raise eyebrows, while the appearance of the kick-happy Chris Malone at stand-off points to territorial supremacy rather than broken-field invention.

Exeter, full of new-year optimism after the heroics of the past four months, have sold out Sandy Park for tomorrow's set-to with Leicester, who needed the best part of 70 minutes to subdue the newcomers in round two. The Devonians cannot hope to surprise the champions this time; if they take anything from the game, it will be because they do things better rather than differently. Much interest surrounds their new southern hemisphere centre partnership of Sireli Naqelevuki, a Fijian who plays prop in sevens, and Jason Shoemark, a more traditionally constructed New Zealander.

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