Leeds need 15 Neil Backs to play Exeter or they are down
Leeds v Exeter
Neil Back is not renowned for giving up the ghost. Successive red-rose coaches – Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell and, initially, Clive Woodward – all took the view that small was anything but beautiful when it came to picking players for the national team, yet the most technically accomplished English open-side flanker of the post-war era still found a means of getting his own way. How did he manage it? For one thing, he was as tough as old boots: Martin Johnson, the current national manager, once said he would bet a month's money on his old Leicester clubmate being the last man standing in a mass brawl. He was also extraordinarily resourceful.
The first of those qualities may not be directly transferable to his role at Headingley, but the second is an essential part of the Leeds coach's armoury as he takes his side into the win-or-bust part of the season. If the Yorkshiremen lose tomorrow, their goose will be just about cooked, so if there was ever a moment for 15 Neil Backs to take the field, this is it.
"We need to produce our best performance," the World Cup winner said yesterday. "We know we need to win to keep our fate in our own hands. We have two more home games to go, and we travel to Newcastle (second bottom, six points ahead) next Saturday. If we can get the right result against Exeter, it will set us up brilliantly for that match." Is there real hope, or is he relying on blind faith and the charity of others? "We've scored six tries in our last three games," he replied. "That gives us confidence."
Marco Wentzel, the key man in last season's successful rearguard action, returns to the second row after injury. The Devonians, meanwhile, have made five changes to the side beaten at London Irish last time out, going for pounds and ounces – Chad Slade, James Phillips – over mobility. James Hanks and Tom Johnson have been omitted from the pack, while two Pacific Islanders, the scrum-half Junior Poluleuligaga and the brick-outhouse wing Nemani Nadolo, come into the back line.
Saracens v Bath
The home side, chasing a first Premiership title, have lost two of their South African contingent – the half-back Neil de Kock and the back-rower Justin Melck – to minor injuries. Richard Wigglesworth returns at the base of a pack that now includes the Scottish No 8 Kelly Brown.
Bath travel with Nick Abendanon at full-back – a player who may yet find himself in trouble after the hearty punch-up with Leicester last week, despite having been substituted. Sir Ian McGeechan's team are still smarting from the magnitude of the defeat by their great rivals, and have recalled Shontayne Hape to the midfield as a consequence.
Harlequins v Leicester
Harlequins raised eyebrows last weekend by putting a half-century of points on Gloucester, the form team in the country. Under the circumstances, the outside-half Rory Clegg, a stand-out performer seven days ago, must feel thoroughly hacked off at being dropped. There again, the All Black midfielder Nick Evans is not any old playmaker. Evans's return from injury means Leicester, leaders of the log by three points, will have to be on their mettle. They travel with Jordan Crane at No 8, as opposed to another member of the New Zealand diaspora, Thomas Waldrom, who would much rather be starting, given his decision to push for a World Cup place with England.
London Irish v Wasps
Wasps are in a horrible place, and if they lose this alleged London derby in the heart of the M4 corridor tomorrow, their chances of making next season's Heineken Cup will be a long way short of brilliant. They have made changes all over the place, with Mark van Gisbergen and Dominic Waldouck in the back line, Joe Simpson in his preferred position of scrum-half, and Will Matthews joining Andy Powell in a reshaped back row.
Northampton v Sale
Northampton, gearing up for their big Heineken Cup quarter-final with Ulster next weekend, have taken a tried-and-trusted approach to selection, with most of the big names in the starting line-up. There is, however, no run-on spot for Phil Dowson, who finds himself on the bench.
Gloucester v Newcastle
Gloucester, profoundly startled by the scale of their failure at Quins last weekend, have recalled Nick Wood, Olivier Azam, Jim Hamilton and Alex Brown to their tight five for today's game. Johnny May is the other newcomer, replacing the injured Charlie Sharples on the wing.
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