Crunch time in battle against relegation

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The Independent Online

The Premiership rounds of truth are upon us - today's Northampton v Saracens fixture and tomorrow's Bristol v Wasps game are of great significance - but thanks to the fun and games on the far side of the Severn Bridge, where the credibility of Welsh rugby is unravelling almost as fast as Gavin Henson's popularity among his fellow players, the general public might be excused for not noticing.

Neither Saracens not Bristol can afford to lose this weekend. If they do, the remaining 11 weeks of the campaign will be more stressful than a spell as Education Secretary in a Labour government.

Saracens are seven points off the relegation spot, having confirmed their reputation as the Grim Reapers of the English club game by getting shot of yet another director of rugby. Bristol are a mere five points clear of trouble, having slipped almost imperceptibly into the mire by losing matches they should have won with their eyes shut. There is a widespread suspicion that Leeds, who have propped up the table from the outset, are too good to go down. If that turns out to be the case, the scrap for survival will be fraught indeed.

Bristol might have been safe by now. Refereed out of a victory at London Irish before Christmas by a series of decisions best described as "interesting", they threw away an obvious opportunity at Northampton on New Year's Day and then fouled up what should have been a straightforward piece of business against Worcester in front of their home support. As a result, the doubts and fears circulating around the Memorial Ground back in September are in evidence once again.

Richard Hill, whose coaching of a limited squad on a limited budget has been one of the more impressive aspects of the season to date, has precious little to prove to anyone. The man is an absolute diamond. But he is about to be tested to the full, for Wasps, thumped at Bath's Recreation Ground last month and poor value for their scratchy home draw with Northampton six days ago, are unlikely to give Bristol too many free gifts tomorrow, even though Joe Worsley, one of England's star turns in Rome, has been rested and Alex King is nursing a fractured thumb. The Londoners badly need the reassurance of a job well done, hence the presence of Lawrence Dallaglio, Tom Voyce, Matt Dawson and Simon Shaw in the starting line-up less than a week before the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield.

"We've gone two games without a win, so it is vital to get a result and maintain our place in the top two," said Ian McGeechan, their director of rugby. "The fight for play-off places has stepped up over the last couple of weeks, and it's all too easy to take your eye off the ball, particularly during the international season. Historically, Wasps find Bristol a tough place to win. They are well-organised and tight-knit, and hungry for a win after a disappointing start to 2006. If we allow their pack to provide a platform, they'll be dangerous."

Saracens travel to Franklin's Gardens, very much a buzzing venue these days, without their captain, Hugh Vyvyan, whose dodgy ankle gives Kris Chesney the opportunity to lead the side on his 150th senior appearance. They do, however, have Kyran Bracken at scrum-half and Cobus Visagie at tight-head prop, two age-old former internationals who can, with the grace of God and the aid of a good walking stick, still deliver a performance. How their side need performances here. A little over a week after promoting Mike Ford to the status of temporary top dog after the sacking of Steve Diamond, there is a darkness hanging over the Sarries set-up.

Can the likes of Adam Powell, a mere kid of a centre, and Steffon Armitage, a flanker equally wet behind the ears, hold themselves together in the face of Carlos Spencer and Bruce Reihana, Sean Lamont and Ben Cohen? It is a big ask. Experience counts in these uncomfortable situations, so the inclusion as bench fodder of such luminaries as Thomas Castaignède, the midfield maestro from France, and Shane Byrne, a Test Lion last summer, is intriguing, to say the least.

Weekend team news

* BATH v LONDON IRISH

(Today 2.15)

England's Danny Grewcock, Steve Borthwick, Matt Stevens and Lee Mears all return with Wales' Gareth Delve. Olivier Magne of France is back for Irish.

* NORTHAMPTON v SARACENS

(Today 2.45)

England's Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson and Scotland's Sean Lamont return for Northampton. Cobus Visagie and Kyran Bracken are back for Saracens.

* BRISTOL v WASPS

(Tomorrow 1.30)

Bristol give Tommy Hayes his first start. Craig Short and Dan Ward-Smith also start. Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson, Simon Shaw and Tom Voyce return for Wasps.

* NEWCASTLE v GLOUCESTER

(Tomorrow 2.30)

Falcons are without Jonny Wilkinson, but Colin Charvis returns, as does Jamie Noon. Andy Hazell is back for Gloucester.

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