Marshall reopens relegation debate

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The Independent Online

Justin Marshall, used to losing once in a blue moon rather than losing his sporting deposit, had one or two sharp words for English rugby's principled commitment to promotion and relegation yesterday - an interesting piece of timing, given that his Leeds side will certainly disappear through a big hole in the floor if they fail to secure victory over Saracens at Headingley tomorrow night.

"I can't quite believe we're in the position we are because I don't think we're that bad a team," said the former All Black scrum-half, who left New Zealand for Yorkshire last summer with high hopes of a more satisfactory return on his considerable investment in attempting to maximise the popularity of the union game in natural rugby league territory.

"We haven't been comprehensively outplayed in the Premiership - we've competed with Sale, we've competed with Leicester twice and both of those sides beat us in injury time. We're good enough to be in this competition. Our biggest fault is dropping those tight games, because we're not out of our depth by any means.

"It's a real shame that a team of our calibre - or the calibre of Saracens or Bath or Bristol - have to suffer relegation, because I don't believe it makes a competition stronger. I know people will think I'm only saying this because we're in the position we are, but if it was us that stayed up and one of the other remarkably competitive sides that went down, I honestly wouldn't think it should happen. I've played against these teams and they're good."

Despite the increasingly influential contribution of their multi-Super 12 medal winner from the Canterbury Crusaders, the Yorkshiremen are 11 points adrift at the foot of the table. They have turned sporting escapology into an art form during their time in the top flight, but this time, they are not so much up against a wall as entangled in a barbed-wire fence. They do not have the worst of run-ins - indeed, at least three of their four remaining fixtures are winnable - but with Bath bolstered by their Heineken Cup success and Bristol confident of picking up a couple more victories at home, Saracens are the only side in their sights. Tomorrow will tell us everything about Leeds' chances of digging themselves out of trouble.

Sale, meanwhile, are busily strengthening their ailing back division ahead of next season following the Heineken Cup quarter-final misfire against Biarritz in San Sebastian. The Cardiff Blues outside-half Lee Thomas has agreed a two-year deal to fill the gap left by the Toulouse-bound Valentin Courrent, thereby joining the powerful Newport Gwent Dragons centre Jon Bryant at Edgeley Park.

However, the Premiership leaders have lost the loose-head prop Ben Coutts to Australia, the land of his birth. Coutts has signed for Queensland Reds, and has every chance of working his way up the Wallaby ladder in time for next year's World Cup in France.

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