Leicester's heart and soul hold the aces

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The Independent Online

There are more scheduled departures at Twickenham this evening than Clapham Junction could manage in a month of Sundays. Martin Johnson, Neil Back and their esteemed coach, John Wells, will be in valedictory mood when the final whistle signals a belated end to the Premiership campaign, and Leicester will be much the poorer for their passing - or in Johnson's case, lack of passing. Wasps will also be losing some heart and soul. Two international props, Craig Dowd and Will Green, are playing their final games for the reigning champions, while the director of rugby, Warren Gatland, is preparing to return to his native New Zealand.

There are more scheduled departures at Twickenham this evening than Clapham Junction could manage in a month of Sundays. Martin Johnson, Neil Back and their esteemed coach, John Wells, will be in valedictory mood when the final whistle signals a belated end to the Premiership campaign, and Leicester will be much the poorer for their passing - or in Johnson's case, lack of passing. Wasps will also be losing some heart and soul. Two international props, Craig Dowd and Will Green, are playing their final games for the reigning champions, while the director of rugby, Warren Gatland, is preparing to return to his native New Zealand.

Yet before anyone gets too tearful about all this, it is well worth remembering the following: Johnson and Back are to sentiment what the Two Fat Ladies were to dieting, Wells was probably the most competitive flanker never to win a cap for England, Dowd and Gatland are former All Blacks who could ruck a three-legged puppy into the middle of next week and not betray so much as a smidgen of emotion.

Which leaves Green, one of the most amiable characters ever to pack down in the front row of a scrum. And what did he say last week as he bade a fond farewell to his home crowd after the semi-final victory over Sale? "Don't worry. We'll beat Leicester, whatever it takes." While there may not be a dry eye in the stands, there will not be a damp one on the field - always assuming, of course, that Johnson does not reduce someone's pupils to liquid by giving them a tap in the unmentionables.

Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, summed it up rather neatly this week when he said: "Both teams have lots of people departing, but this is what happens in rugby. There will be other people to take their place. At the moment, both clubs are trophy-less for this season and we both want to win one. If the final is not of Test match intensity, we will all be disappointed." So there.

Say what you like about the Premiership play-off system - and most right-thinking people do precisely that, in terms that cannot be described as affectionate - today's final should be by far the best of the bunch to date. This may not be saying much, for Gloucester were virtually on holiday when they were minced by Wasps two years ago, and Bath were so fantastically inept outside the scrum last season that they could still be at Twickenham now and not have scored a try. All the same, a Leicester-Wasps fixture gets the juices flowing, and it will be no surprise if these proceedings live up to the grandeur of the setting.

On the face of it, Leicester hold the aces. The convoluted end-of-term fixture programme has been kind to them - they have had only one blank week, as opposed to the three weeks of inactivity imposed on Gloucester in 2003 - and they have the last of this season's three victories over Wasps, a 45-10 thumping at Welford Road, fresh in their minds.

They look strong in all departments, notwithstanding the absences of Graham Rowntree and Lewis Moody from the starting line-up, and with Martin Corry, the form forward in England this year, resuming his No8 duties after suspension, they are assured of some serious drive and energy from the base of the scrum.

Wasps know all about this, though, and do not give a tinker's. The Londoners are the masters of big-game timing, and but for the injuries to Jonny O'Connor and Tom Rees that have left them without a specialist open-side flanker to argue the toss with the ultra-committed Back, they might have started as joint favourites. As it is, Joe Worsley will shift to the breakaway position - an unfamiliar role nowadays, although he spent a fair bit of time there five or six years ago - with John Hart filling the hole on the blind side. Pure fear will probably elevate Hart to previously unconquered heights, but the lack of balance in the back row could easily cost the champions their title.

By way of a warm-up act, Gloucester and Saracens go eyeball to eyeball in pursuit of a place in next season's Heineken Cup. The West Countrymen are hardened European campaigners, while Saracens are mere Continental occasionals, having not qualified for the élite tournament since the 2000-01 campaign.

If Steve Diamond's fast-improving side do not see off an orthopaedically challenged Cherry and White outfit on this occasion - in something approaching desperation, Gloucester are trying to get the incapacitated Phil Vickery fit for duty - they may never qualify again.

Leicester: S Vesty; G Murphy, O Smith, D Gibson, L Lloyd; A Goode, H Ellis; D Morris, G Chuter, J White, M Johnson (capt), B Kay, L Deacon, N Back, M Corry.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, A Erinle, J Lewsey, T Voyce; A King, M Dawson; T Payne, P Greening, W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Hart, J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt).

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