Safety-first Saints shore up the front row stocks with Prescott

Northampton, the Premiership leaders, seemed perfectly serene when they lost the services of the world-class Scotland prop Euan Murray earlier this month: Jim Mallinder, the Midlanders' director of rugby, talked enthusiastically of his front-row options, insisting that Murray's abrupt departure would not leave his side exposed in their headlong pursuit of silverware. And what happened yesterday? Why, Mallinder signed himself a prop, just in case.

Ben Prescott, a peripatetic sort who played second-division rugby in England and Celtic League rugby with Glasgow before moving to Leinster, applied his thumbprint to a short-term contract that will keep him at Franklin's Gardens until the end of the season. The 32-year-old forward, born in Libya of all places, was a member of the Dublin-based team's senior squad, but has featured only once this season.

"We're still competing on three fronts and having Ben in the squad will provide cover in a position where you can never have too many players," Mallinder explained, adding that Prescott's performances for Rotherham and Nottingham in England's second-tier marked him out as a prop with the capacity to step up a level. "We know the Championship is a competitive league, and that players need a lot of know-how if they are to prosper."

Still on the tight-head front, the Scarlets' Rhys Thomas has an outside chance of returning to the Welsh region's pack for the important Heineken Cup meeting with Leicester on 15 January. Thomas fractured his leg during the first game of the rubber at Welford Road in October and has not played since, but he is back running and may be considered if he survives contact training over the next few days.

With his fellow props Deacon Manu and Peter Edwards nursing broken arms, the Scarlets have good reason to fast-track Thomas's rehabilitation. "I'm 10 weeks down the line from the injury and progressing each day," said the Wales international. "The club want me for the 15th purely because of the problems elsewhere and I'd love to play. If I don't, fingers crossed we'll qualify from the pool and there will be more big European games to come."

Another of the club's Test players, Morgan Stoddart, has recovered from a shoulder injury and will start on the wing in the New Year's Day derby with Newport Gwent Dragons at Parc y Scarlets.

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