Leeds' hopes of staying up lifted as Northampton rest Cup heroes

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The Independent Online

Northampton v Leeds

The chances of relegation-haunted Leeds saving their skin by beating a full-strength Northampton at Franklin's Gardens this afternoon would have been mirrored by the odds on Nick Clegg performing cartwheels of joy on the front lawn of his constituency home in Sheffield.

But Northampton will not be at full strength. Half of their uber-pack will be missing, along with their first-choice half-backs and one of their centres. Newcastle, the other side in the mire on this final day of the regular season, must be spitting feathers.

It is not that the Midlanders don't give a damn: with Bath still within touching distance, they have yet to close the deal on a place in the play-offs. But six days on from their Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Perpignan, the management have this one opportunity to rest such central figures as Jon Clarke, Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson, Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes. And yes, they are taking it.

If the Yorkshiremen, shorn of their injured captain Marco Wentzel, fail to do a number on Northampton-lite, they will place their immediate future in the hands of Cornish Pirates, who could block all relegation from the elite league by beating Worcester over two legs, beginning in Penzance on Wednesday night. Judging by Worcester's performance against Bedford last weekend, this is far from a lost cause from the Leeds perspective. All the same, their coach Neil Back would prefer to be in control of his own destiny.

Bath v Newcastle

In contrast to the side immediately above them in the table, Bath are throwing the kitchen sink, plus accompanying cooking utensils, at this one – partly because they half-believe they can pinch a semi-final slot and partly because they want to give Danny Grewcock, their magnificent lock forward, a worthy send-off if, as is likely, this turns out to be his last appearance before retirement. Grewcock has been worth his weight in gold ingots down the years. He will be cheered to the rafters at the Recreation Ground this afternoon, and rightly so.

Newcastle could not care less about such sentimentality, and they have not decided to give the England Under-20s captain Alex Gray a first Premiership start in the back row simply because they think it might be nice for him. Gray is a player of considerable promise. More pertinently, the Tynesiders feel he has the mental strength to cope with what is certain to be a difficult 80 minutes.

Leicester v London Irish

By messing up at home to Northampton, the Exiles have left themselves exposed in terms of qualification for next season's Heineken Cup. They need a draw to be certain of making the cut – no easy task at Welford Road, despite Gloucester's success in squaring an 82-point argument there last month. If they lose, they must hope Harlequins do likewise at home to Saracens.

There will be no Delon Armitage in the London Irish back division, thanks to his latest brush with authority, but the pack looks solid enough. There again, solid is not always sufficient when you have Marcos Ayerza, Martin Castrogiovanni, Tom Croft, Craig Newby and Thomas Waldrom on your case.

Harlequins v Saracens

This could be the most exciting contest of the day. Quins, free-running and fast-flowing, are on a hot streak, yet it is Saracens, already guaranteed a home semi-final, who have won their last nine league games. Steve Borthwick, the visitors' captain, will start on the bench, but they still have enough clout up front to deliver the tightly organised, error-free brand of rugby that has stood them in such good stead.

Gloucester v Sale

Nicky Robinson returns for his last Kingsholm appearance before joining Wasps. (The word "why" is no less relevant now than it was when he announced his decision.) A single point against a half-baked Sale side desperate for the season to end will be enough to secure a semi-final berth.

Exeter v Wasps

A dead game, although the Devonians have an opportunity to sneak ahead of the Londoners and finish their first Premiership season in eighth, rather than ninth.

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