Crunch time in the battle for play-off places

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The Independent Online

Now that the worst excesses of the International Rugby Board's self-styled modernisers have been successfully resisted, and the next worst have been gently channelled towards the Anglo-Welsh Cup – British sport's equivalent of the ox-bow lake – it is now just about possible to concentrate on the last eight days of the Premiership, the rampant success of which explains at least some of the southern hemisphere's apparent desperation to change the fundamental nature of the union code.

The number-crunching tells a fascinating tale: four play-off-places are at stake; eight points separate the six clubs in the shake-up; four matches over the final couple of rounds see contenders in direct opposition. Two of those fixtures take place tomorrow afternoon, when Wasps welcome the leaders Gloucester to High Wycombe and Harlequins take on Sale at The Stoop. It would be too much to expect a repeat of last weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final splendour, but hey – if Brian Ashton can be kicked out of the England coaching set-up after guiding a ho-hum team to a World Cup final and second place in the Six Nations Championship, anything is possible.

In the 11 years since it became the focal point of professional club rugby in England, the Premiership has never seen a finish quite like this. By and large, the sides in the top half of the log have been separated by 20 points or more: as recently as 2004-05, there was a gap of 31 points between Leicester, the No 1 team, and sixth-placed Gloucester. This time, the two teams missing out on the end-of-season bun fight are unlikely to do so by more than a gnat's crotchet, as dear old Humphrey Lyttleton would have said.

Under normal circumstances, the top six would expect a place among the Heineken Cup elite as a reward for their efforts over the eight-and-a-half month slog of league activity, but even this is not guaranteed here. Should Worcester beat Bath in the final of the European Challenge Cup final later this month – not wholly out of the question, given the West Midlanders' late run of form and their opponents' distractions at the business end of the Premiership – only the leading five will be involved when the shop-window tournament starts anew in the autumn.

Having set the pace, Gloucester might have assumed they would have a play-off place to themselves by now. Fat chance. Unlikely to win at Wasps, they face Bath at Kingsholm in the last round of fixtures. Two defeats would leave them horribly exposed, especially if Sale prevail at Quins and Leicester do a job at Kingston Park tomorrow against a Newcastle side weakened by the absences of England centres, Toby Flood and Jamie Noon.

They are a curious lot, Leicester. In years gone by, they were a fixed point in an ever changing world – organised, cohesive and, in the nicest possible way, utterly mean-spirited. This season they have been paragons of unpredictability. Some of their performances have been of the vintage variety, others have bordered on the dire. All is not well behind the scenes, where the Argentine coach Marcelo Loffreda is struggling for air in the most claustrophobic of club environments, and there is little doubt that he will be on his way if the Tigers fail to make the cut. James Hamilton, their Scottish international lock, is already heading out. He will play for Edinburgh next term.

For all that, they are a decent bet to take at least eight points from their last two outings – enough to have everyone peering nervously over their shoulders. Perhaps the only two teams entirely confident of making it through to the knock-out stage are Bath, who are playing some terrific stuff, and Wasps, those masters of the 11th-hour surge, who have a game in hand.

Bath will expect to take five points from this evening's game with Saracens at the Recreation Ground. The West Countrymen are fielding all their front-line personnel – Olly Barkley, the form back in England, is at inside centre; the South African half-backs, Butch James and Michael Claassens, will be in tandem; Matt Stevens, the most potent front-row forward in Europe, is at tight-head prop; Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock are together in the second row. Their opponents, on the other hand, are hauling themselves off the deck following their exhausting, not so say traumatising, defeat by Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final six days ago.

So many big games, so little certainty. No wonder the southern hemisphere don't like us. Jealous buggers.

Premiership team news

*Bristol (9th) v Worcester (11th) (Today, 3pm)

Bristol give Sam Cox, Rob Higgitt, Jason Strange and Dave Hilton each a start. Worcester rest Pat Sanderson and give a debut to Joe Carlisle.

*Harlequins (4) v Sale (5) (Tomorrow, 3pm)

Tom Guest replaces No 8 Nick Easter who is on the bench. James Percival and Tani Fuga start. Sébastien Chabal and Jason White both return for Sale.

*London Irish (7) v Leeds Carnegie (12) (Tomorrow, 3pm)

Topsy Ojo switches from wing to full-back for Irish. Leeds have Tom Biggs, Vili Ma'asi, Tommy McGee and Adam Balding all starting.

*Newcastle (10) v Leicester (6) (Tomorrow, 3pm)

Centres Toby Flood and Jamie Noon are both out for Newcastle, so Tim Visser and Tom Dillon are in. Leicester give hooker Benjamin Kayser and lock Marco Wentzel a start.

*Wasps (3) v Gloucester (1) (Tomorrow, 3pm)

Wasps bring in Tim Payne and Tom French to replace the injured Phil Vickery and Pat Barnard. Flanker Joe Worsley starts, Riki Flutey partners Fraser Waters in midfield. Centre Anthony Allen returns.

David Llewellyn