The last time Leicester found themselves the best part of 30 points off the pace in the top echelon of the domestic club game, Martin Johnson was shaking the bars of his playpen rather than drinking the bars dry in downtown Sydney. This afternoon, the England captain returns to the Tigers' starting line-up for a Premiership match against Gloucester at Welford Road that is infinitely more significant than its mid-table status might suggest. If Leicester lose this one, their season will be bankrupt.
This would be quite some irony, given that the Tigers are the richest club in the land. Last summer, they were able to sign two international props in Julian White and Darren Morris, an All Black centre in Daryl Gibson and an Italian international stand-off in Ramiro Pez, an expensive little package in anyone's currency. Money well spent? Er... not exactly.
White is perpetually injured - his latest knee problems will probably keep him out of the Six Nations' Championship, as well as the meat of Leicester's Heineken Cup campaign - while Morris' fitness tends to be a matter of opinion. Pez has proved such a runaway success that the Tigers have re-signed Andy Goode from Saracens, having given him the heave-ho a couple of seasons back. Now that the ultra-dependable Gibson has also picked up an injury, the double European champions are no closer to fielding a settled side than Johnson is to winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
In recent weeks, they have lost at home to a 14-man Bath side and registered a big fat zero on the scoreboard at Northampton - two excruciating experiences for a club wholly unused to humiliation. True, they inflicted considerable damage on Leeds in the last round of Premiership matches, but then Leeds failed to threaten a weak Saracens side two days ago at Vicarage Road. Leicester badly need to fire a meaningful shot if they are to make anything of this campaign, and today must be the day.
According to Dean Richards, their embattled director of rugby, the stars are beginning to realign in favour of his team. "We're starting to get into the swing of it now, instead of everything being fragmented," he said. "Parts of our performance against Leeds last weekend were the best I've seen all season." Richards singled out Henry Tuilagi, the Samoan loose forward, for individual praise, and the islander will occupy the No 8 position again this afternoon, with Neil Back and Will Johnson on the flanks. His contest with his countryman, Junior Paramore, is not expected to be entirely peaceful.
With Bath, the nine-point leaders, likely to win at Rotherham tomorrow - a patched-up back division lacking Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, Robbie Fleck and Mike Catt should still account for the relegation certainties - Wasps will treat their attractive Sunday afternoon match with Sale as a further opportunity to hone what is already the sharpest cutting edge in the Premiership. Rob Howley's return at scrum-half will give the likes of Alex King and Josh Lewsey greater creative license, while Lawrence Dallaglio has been recalled to the middle of the back row after injury.
Competition for forward places is so intense that Jonny O'Connor, the exceptional young breakaway from Ireland, and two international front-rowers, Phil Greening and Will Green, have been demoted to the bench. There is less congestion in the second row, however. Richard Birkett suffered a heavy blow to the kidneys while scoring the first of his side's four tries at London Irish last weekend, and is unlikely to resume active duty for a couple of months. Martin Purdy starts tomorrow.
London Irish, badly beaten by Wasps, are one of three sides disputing third place in the table, and it just so happens that Northampton, their closest rivals, visit the Madejski Stadium tomorrow. The Exiles have lost an entire back row to injury - no Kieron Dawson, no Declan Danaher, no Chris Sheasby - so Phil Murphy, the Canadian No 8, gets a start in his preferred position alongside the ever-combative Paul Gustard and the less familiar Michael Haslett. The visitors will fancy their chances of finishing the weekend in a play-off position.
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