Saints fear the long hard winter

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The Independent Online

Fully two months without a victory. Sliding into the danger zone of the Zurich Premiership table. To say that the winter is starting to look bleak at Franklin's Gardens is somewhat of an understatement. Following their recent slump in form, the 2000 European champions find themselves having to beat Bristol today to avoid having to deal with the ignominy of remaining in the bottom three.

Fully two months without a victory. Sliding into the danger zone of the Zurich Premiership table. To say that the winter is starting to look bleak at Franklin's Gardens is somewhat of an understatement. Following their recent slump in form, the 2000 European champions find themselves having to beat Bristol today to avoid having to deal with the ignominy of remaining in the bottom three.

No doubt Northampton's fans will try to draw some comfort from the fact that of the 15 times the two sides have met in serious competition, the Saints have emerged triumphant on 10 of those occasions. Not the last time though, when Bristol won the first-round encounter by a resounding 46-16.

The sequence of three defeats was stopped, just, in a 13-13 draw with Harlequins but before then the Saints had been given the runaround by Sale, Leicester and Saracens. One has to go back to 16 September for the last victory, over the Leeds Tykes.

It won't be easy for the hosts though. Without half a dozen key players themselves, they are still traumatised by the 48-12 reverse at the hands of London Irish last weekend. And to make matters worse the Shoguns are today boosted by the return of Felipe Contepomi, Agustin Pichot, Julian White, and Phil Christopher; both Contepomi and Pichot are buoyant following impressive displays for Argentina in international victories against Wales and Scotland.

Another Argentina international, Octavio Bartolucci, will make his Leeds home debut today against the Sale Sharks, despite arriving at the Headingley club some 10 weeks ago. He did appear in the starting XV at Bristol in September, but has since been warming the bench. Today he gets his chance to shine.

Sale, sitting in seventh spot on the 12-team table, make do without their England backline battleship Jason Robinson and won't be naming their team until this morning.

The third match of today's programme sees Newcastle, sitting comfortably with the likes of Leicester and resurgent London Irish in the top echelon of the table, travel to Bath, who are bottom.

In their first fixture of the season, spectators were treated to a single point separating the teams after 80 minutes of no-holds-barred rugby. Unfortunately for Bath, they were on the wrong side of a 24-23 result.

Bath are yet to name their squad for what is shaping up as a daunting challenge, but Newcastle are happy to announce an injury-free squad. However they are weakened by the unavailability due to international duty of Jonny Wilkinson, Andrew Mower, Stuart Grimes, George Graham and Inga Tuigamala. The Rec faithful won't be handing out sympathy cards to their visitors on arrival later today.

The Falcons stretched their unbeaten run to six matches, and nudged into third spot on the Premiership table, with an 18-16 victory over Gloucester last time out, clearly turning winning into something of a habit.

On Friday night Gloucester consigned Wasps to a seventh consecutive defeat largely thanks to their French international hooker Olivier Azam's two first-half tries, which laid the platform for a 43-13 victory as convincing as the scoreline suggests.

Martin Offiah, the former league icon, made his Wasps debut from the bench with 10 minutes to go, but by this stage Gloucester were rampant, scoring 17 points in the last seven minutes.

Champions of England, champions of Europe, Leicester were short of full strength but still a touch too good on the night for Harlequins, registering a 23-18 home victory, all their points coming from full-back Tim Stimpson with three penalties and two tries, which he calmly converted himself.

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