Davies finds hope among dark clouds over Leeds

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The Independent Online

Phil Davies, the director of rugby at Leeds, has been heard to use the word "enjoyment" in respect of this afternoon's interesting little run-around with London Irish at the Madejski Stadium, which on the face of it makes him either mad or masochistic. Perhaps he is both.

If the Exiles are one of the form teams in the country, the Yorkshiremen are precisely the opposite. As Leeds need a victory, preferably of the bonus-point variety, just to give themselves a puncher's chance of avoiding relegation and all the professional indignity and financial misery that goes with it, what the hell is there to enjoy?

There again, Davies is one of the cooler cats in the rugby industry when it comes to operating with his back against a wall. Some would point out that he has had enough practice, given his side's inability to make proper sense of this Premiership lark since they joined the top flight in 2001. But there must be more to the Welshman's public imperturbability than mere force of habit, unless it is nothing but an act and he spends his out-of-work hours kicking the cat.

Davies is certainly convincing in his serenity. "Undoubtedly, we have the quality within our group to give us confidence to get the result we are after," he said yesterday. "We are not speculating on what will happen at the end of the season. We are just going to go out to enjoy and express ourselves in the remaining three fixtures." Crikey. Talk about grace under pressure.

Leeds did the double over London Irish last season, but the good news ends there. While the visitors have lost four of their last five Premiership matches, a run that included emotionally debilitating injury-time defeats at Sale and Leicester, the Exiles have won four of theirs. They are running hot in midfield - Riki Flutey and Mike Catt are combining in a New Zealand-style "five-eighths" operation that pays rich dividends every time they take the field - and their set-piece work is utterly dependable. If Davies is to get any sort of a result today, his team will have to be approximately 100 per cent more accurate than at any point in the campaign. It is a desperately big ask.

Given that the game at the Madejski finishes just before Bath take the field this evening - and the best part of 24 hours before Newcastle host Sale at Kingston Park tomorrow afternoon - the other relegation candidates will find themselves in the advantageous position of knowing exactly what they have to do. The West Countrymen could conceivably start their derby with Bristol at the Recreation Ground secure in the knowledge that they are safe for another season. The Tynesiders could kick off requiring only a losing bonus point to achieve the same end.

Bath are taking few chances, despite the close proximity of a Heineken Cup semi-final with Biarritz in the middle of Basque country. Their England locks, Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock, have both spent the week limping forlornly around the clubhouse, but both will start today's game. Other important players - the outstanding French wing David Bory included - have been dragooned into the starting line-up rather than granted another week's rest and recuperation. It is not simply a matter of Premiership security. It is the fact they are playing that bloody lot from along the road.

There is another derby occasion today: the set-to between Gloucester and Worcester at Kingsholm. Like virtually every other game at this advanced stage of the campaign, it has plenty riding on the result. Gloucester, riddled with injuries, have lost four on the bounce but remain within shouting distance of a top-four finish - something that would send them into this season's play-offs and next season's Heineken Cup.

Worcester, meanwhile, have shipped five out of six and disappeared into the nether regions of the table. They badly need to right recent wrongs as a matter of urgency, not simply because their confidence will evaporate if they keep losing, but because they have an important European Challenge Cup semi-final next weekend against - yes, you guessed it - Gloucester.

Premiership team news

* BATH v BRISTOL (Today, 5.15pm)

Nick Walshe starts at scrum-half and David Bory is on the wing for Bath. Bristol are unchanged.

* GLOUCESTER v WORCESTER (Today, 3pm)

Adam Eustace comes into Gloucester's second row. Worcester bring Mark Tucker on to the right wing as Aisea Havili moves over to the left.

* LONDON IRISH v LEEDS (Today, 3pm)

Irish have Nils Mordt at outside centre and Faan Rautenbach at tight-head. Roland de Marigny is at No 10 and Mike Shelley at loose-head for Leeds.

* NEWCASTLE v SALE (Tomorrow, 2.30pm)

Mathew Tait replaces Jamie Noon at outside centre and Jonny Wilkinson is on the Falcons bench. Sébastien Chabal is back for Sale.

* SARACENS v WASPS (Tomorrow, 3pm)

Thomas Castaignède is on Saracens' wing. Dan Leo makes a Premiership debut at blind-side for Wasps, with Matt Dawson at scrum-half and Peter Bracken at tight-head.

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