Leicester seek final route from oblivion

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The Independent Online

You have to hand it to Leicester: when they do something, they do it properly. Having won back-to-back English and European titles in 2001 and 2002 - a truly phenomenal effort, unlikely to be repeated by anyone this side of the Apocalypse - they promptly staged a collapse of equally epic proportions. This time last year, they had won the Zurich Premiership going away and retained the Heineken Cup with a merited, if controversial, victory over Munster. Now, they are so far off the pace, you need binoculars to locate them.

If they lose to Saracens in the new-fangled Zurich Premiership wildcard final at Northampton this afternoon - the game gives the winner the last of England's six Heineken places - they will spend next season down among the deadbeats in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup. "Failure to qualify for the Heineken would be unimaginable," said Adam Balding, their England A back-rower, this week. "It's a shame we have let it get this far, but at least we have one last shout."

Unimaginable? Er, not quite. Leicester start as favourites today, but only because they are Leicester. Deprived of Austin Healey, Ollie Smith and Lewis Moody, all of whom can be counted among the long-term injured, they must also make do without Josh Kronfeld, the former All Black flanker, and Geordan Murphy, one of the few Tigers to have played to his potential this term. And what potential. Murphy's brilliance has kept the fallen champions afloat on more occasions than his colleagues would care to remember. However, international duty with Ireland calls, and he will not take the field at Franklin's Gardens. Ridiculous as it may sound, the East Midlanders are scratching around for a starting line-up.

Saracens, meanwhile, are in one piece, more or less - quite an irony, given the injuries that disrupted them throughout the league section of this endless season. Tim Horan and Abdel Benazzi, two undisputed greats of the modern era, are as fit as might reasonably be expected, given their advanced years, and will be motivated to the eyeballs, given that they are making their final appearances in the black strip. (Horan's performance at full-back against Bristol last month was something to behold, and if he turns it on again today, he may be the difference between the sides.)

There will also be a fair bit of sentiment slopping around in the Saracens front row. David Flatman is about to move to Bath, Matt Cairns is on his way to Sale and Christian Califano is heading back to France, with Agen. If Saracens win today and earn themselves a place in the Heineken, they may renew acquaintances with Califano when Europe's élite tournament replaces the World Cup on centre stage. Such is life on the rugby merry-go-round.

On the face of it, Leicester are better placed to make an impact in Europe. Their recent recruitment activities have been the most notable part of their campaign to date - Daryl Gibson, Julian White, Darren Morris and Ramiro Pez are a quality quartet - and assuming the likes of Healey and Moody are fit, they will look a whole lot stronger than at any point in the last eight and a half months.

But today's game is a dangerous one for the fallen champions, struggling as they are for top-class personnel. Saracens have not fielded a decent pack all year, but if they somehow sneak 40 per cent of the ball, they could bring Leicester's annus horribilis to an appropriately horrible conclusion.

Saracens (from): Forwards: C Califano, D Flatman, J Marsters, M Storey, J Ross, R Russell, M Cairns, C Yandell, A Benazzi, S Hooper, T Roques, R Hill, K Chesney, B Skirving, B Russell. Backs: K Bracken, M Williams, D Kirton, A Goode, N Little, K Sorrell, T Horan, B Johnston, D O'Mahony, R Haughton, N McAvoy, T Castaignède.

Leicester: squad to be named.