Pountney points out bottom line to Northampton

The writing is on the wall for Northampton - literally. For the last three weeks, thanks to the table being taped up on the team-room wall by head coach Budge Pountney, the Saints squad has had to contemplate the unacceptable but irrefutable fact that they are bottom of the Zurich Premiership.

It matters little that in those three weeks Northampton were undefeated in their two European Cup matches and Powergen Cup tie because before that they suffered nine consecutive defeats in the Zurich Premiership. Today, they have to travel to an improving London Irish, who beat them by a point last month and sit 12 points ahead in the table.

"We have had the league table taped up in the team-room for the whole cup period," Pountney said. "The players know where they are - and they are champing at the bit to get out of that bottom spot." But as Pountney pointed out: "London Irish are a hard team to play against - and they will have 20,000 fans spurring them on."

There is an equally tight match up at Edgeley Park, Stockport, where third-placed Sale and fourth-placed Bath slug it out. The home side have all their England men back, a fact which has not escaped injury-ridden Bath. "You put Jason Robinson and Charlie Hodgson into any side and you have a different team," said John Connolly, the Bath head coach. "Sale are a handful for anyone up there."

Bath have their danger men, too. Matt Perry has shaken off the hamstring injury that has caused him to miss the best part of a month and comes in at full-back. His return marks an easing of Bath's chronic injury problem. "We have more than 21 players to call on," a relieved Connolly added, referring to the European Cup match when they were unable to field a full complement of replacements.

Wasps might well have to start with their most troublesome replacement, Johnny Barrett, on the bench today; it was his illegal presence in the Powergen Cup against Bristol which caused them to be ejected from the competition. Wasps' hooker Phil Greening is doubtful, so Barrett is on standby.

They entertain Gloucester, who fell away a little in the title race last month, suffering a shock reverse against Wasps at Kingsholm in the middle of a run of three defeats. Nigel Melville's side have returned to winning ways, though, and the Gloucester director of rugby said: "We've had four wins in a row and it's a good habit to be in. The guys will want to continue the recent momentum."

Leeds expect a record crowd at Headingley, where they entertain Newcastle. The Jonny Wilkinson factor, even though the England fly-half is on the bench, has been credited with the taking the Tykes past their previous best of 7,467.

As for the leaders Leicester, they must entertain an underrated, but distinctly awkward Worcester team. The Tigers did prevail at Sixways last month and a full house is certain to spur them on to even greater things at Welford Road.

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