Key injuries sap strength of Exiles for visit of Sale

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The Independent Online

The Irish may feel they are walking on sunshine following their Triple Crown moment at Twickenham last weekend - not to mention moments of the four-legged variety at Cheltenham - but good fortune is not part of the staple diet of any sporting nation. London Irish, one of five teams scrapping for a place in this season's Guinness Premiership play-offs, will take on the leaders, Sale, at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday with barely half of their first-choice pack.

Internationals from three countries - the Springbok hooker Danie Coetzee, the Canadian loose forward Phil Murphy and the Argentinian No 8 Juan Leguizamon - are all hors de combat, as is the highly rated lock Nick Kennedy. Coetzee has wires in the finger he fractured during the recent victory over Bath, Murphy has yet to recover from a knee operation and Leguizamon, described by his director of rugby, Brian Smith, as "potentially the best No 8 in the game", is still incapacitated by ankle ligaments he twanged in the tight win at Bristol 11 days ago.

Smith said yesterday that Olivier Magne, the experienced French back-rower who celebrated Six Nations success with the Tricolores, would fill Leguizamon's position against Sale, who are a couple of points clear of Wasps in the table, and eight points ahead of the Exiles, who lay third.

London Irish have further injury problems - the goal-kicking outside-half Barry Everitt and the experienced flanker Paul Gustard are on the long-term casualty list - but Smith expects his side to be competitive none the less.

This is just as well, for more than 17,000 Exiles supporters have bought tickets for the game. Indeed, the final gate may be close to 19,000 - a possibility that has led the Madejski Stadium management to open the whole of the venue, rather than to close off one end.

Bath, still not clear of relegation trouble despite the transformative miracle worked on their back division by Brian Ashton since the revered coach's return to the club in January, had their mood lightened yesterday by the news that Olly Barkley, one of the missing links in the England back division during the Six Nations, had signed a new contract taking him through to the end of the 2007-08 campaign.

Barkley is still recovering from a dislocated thumb, the injury that denied England his services and left them with a midfield wholly out of balance, but has an outside chance of making the Heineken Cup quarter-final at Leicester on Saturday week.

"The next few seasons are going to be really important for myself both with Bath and with England," Barkley said. "Working with Brian is one of the main reasons I'm staying. I admire his outlook on how rugby should be played and believe he will take Bath places in the not so distant future."

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