Weekend preview: Depleted Leicester face tough battle to put down Wasps

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The Independent Online

Wasps v Leicester

For much of the last decade, this fixture was the one that really mattered: the best of London against the best of the Midlands, good-time Lawrence Dallaglio against beetle-browed Martin Johnson, the sharpest footballing side in the country against the meanest sons of guns this side of Dodge City. These days, there are other shows in town that generate more interest and have considerably more pulling power. Can the big beasts reassert some authority? Current evidence suggests they have their work cut out.

Wasps have made a ho-hum start to the season and look more vulnerable now than at any point in recent memory. Leicester? Champions they may be, but they were well beaten at Northampton and might easily have finished second to Exeter at home last weekend. Their first-choice midfield is crocked – Toby Flood, Anthony Allen and Dan Hipkiss are all hors de combat – and the same goes for the preferred combination in the engine room. Geoff Parling is long-term injured and there are few obvious signs of Louis Deacon returning to business.

No side boasting forwards as potent as Marcos Ayerza, Martin Castrogiovanni and a properly refreshed Tom Croft will struggle too badly for too long, but Jeremy Staunton, Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Smith at 10, 12 and 13 look less than frightening. "I would never question our resilience," commented the Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill this week, and it was fair for him to do so. But if a Wasps team boasting a range of backline talents cannot put one over their old rivals today, who will say with confidence that they are not a club in decline?

Exeter v Newcastle

The Premiership newcomers are far from smug, but their decision to stick with the same starting XV for a third consecutive week suggests they are far from unhappy with life. This is a tough one, though: Newcastle embark on their longest trip of the league campaign with points in mind and with Micky Young and Jimmy Gopperth making things happen at half-back, they are hardly bereft of scoring potential. The Tynesiders have Rob Vickerman available, too. He replaces Andrew Henderson at centre.

London Irish v Gloucester

Was that a gale-force wind that ripped through the home counties earlier this week? No, it was a hurricane-force sigh of relief. Had George Stowers, the aggressive Samoan back-row forward, been banned for the far-from-criminal tackle that earned him a red card at Bath seven days ago, the Exiles would have struggled to field a competitive back-row unit for tomorrow's meeting with the strugglers from Kingsholm. As it is, Stowers takes his place alongside Kieran Roche and Declan Danaher, and with his countryman Seilala Mapusua back in midfield, the home side start as clear favourites at the Madejski Stadium.

Leeds v Saracens

Played two, lost two. Leeds need something to happen for them, but the absence of two of their better players – the centre Luther Burrell and the teak-tough loose forward Alfie To'oala – suggests it may not happen tomorrow. Saracens were well worth watching in beating Sale six days ago and with Alex Goode retreating to full-back, the position from which he caused so much damage last term, they have a lean and hungry look about them.

Munster v Ospreys

The pick of the Magners League contests pits the glitterati from West Wales against the never-far-away lot from Limerick. Tonight's proceedings at Thomond Park feature such top-of-the-bill acts as Tommy Bowe, Shane Williams, Doug Howlett and the grand old ruffian himself, Alan Quinlan, who makes his 200th appearance for the Irish province.