Coaches set for Christmas juggling act

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The Independent Online

Four Guinness Premiership games in 16 days? Whoever dreamed this one up learned a thing or two from the Marquis de Sade. Now is the time for coaches and selectors to box clever on the squad rotation front, even if it means shipping a result along the way, and if the likes of Richard Hill, head coach of the league leaders Bristol, and Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at neighbouring Gloucester, are anything to go by, there is not a selector in the section who gives his side a cat's hope in hell of getting through Christmas and new year unscathed.

Bristol travel to Leicester tonight - a full-on fixture for a full-strength side if ever there was one. Yet Hill has named just seven first-team regulars, with Shaun Perry and Craig Morgan among the backs, to Mark Regan and Darren Crompton up front on the replacements' bench. Clearly, the West Countrymen do not fancy their chances, and see no point in throwing the kitchen sink at a wall of reinforced concrete. They have some useful deputies in the starting line-up, not least the Maori lock Sean Hohneck, but even though their hosts have omitted some big names of their own, the choice of personnel smacks of prioritisation elsewhere.

Gloucester, three points adrift in second place, may well take over top spot tonight, even though Ryan has joined his local rival in some selectorial tinkering. Marco Bortolami and Carlos Nieto, the two high-class Italian tight forwards recruited last summer, are being rested, as is Ryan Lamb, the most ebullient of the new generation of English outside-halves. The Kingsholmites have genuine strength in depth, however - a back division boasting Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, James Simpson-Daniel, Anthony Allen and the underrated Mark Foster is no laughing matter from the opposition's point of view. As these opponents are Newcastle, who continue to look like a decent three-quarter line in search of a pack, humour could be in even shorter supply than usual.

Of course, some teams barely have a squad to rotate. Sale, the champions, make the awkward trip to Bath off the back of a five-man fall-out from last weekend's remarkable Heineken Cup victory over Stade Français - a game they played while already down to a bare minimum of fit players. It is no surprise, therefore, that Philippe Saint-André, their director of rugby, has been bemoaning his fortunes. The latest casualties include two international forwards in Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and Magnus Lund, plus the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth. If they win, it will be a minor miracle. Then again, there was a similar air about the Stade Français match.

Northampton, every bit as stretched as Sale, welcome the Irish midfielder David Quinlan back after a five week's absence, and his centre partnership with Robbie Kydd allows Carlos Spencer to return to his favoured outside-half position for tonight's meeting with Wasps at Franklin's Gardens. The Midlanders could use a victory, being second from bottom, but their visitors have a lean and hungry look. They have picked from strength - the pack, with Joe Ward replacing Raphael Ibañez at hooker, looks particularly potent - and it will be surprising indeed if they fail to consolidate their standing in the top four.

Watford-based Saracens, moving along very nicely thank you, travel to Harlequins for a London-ish derby (to those rustics living outside the M25 beltway, Sarries will aways be a capital club), and will be bitterly disappointed to leave Twickenham with nothing to show for their trek across town. But perhaps the most significant game tonight sees Worcester, seven points adrift at the bottom, welcome London Irish to Sixways. It just so happens that the hosts are finding a little form at long last, and with three winnable games ahead of them, the cat could soon be amongst the pigeons in terms of the relegation scrap. Watch this space.

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