Saracens aim to hit back by ruining Regan's return

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The Independent Online

These are exciting times at Saracens the most exciting since Michael Lynagh, then the best outside-half in the world, materialised in North London and confirmed that, yes, he really did intend to join a team who played their rugby on a ploughed field just outside Cockfosters and drank in a clubhouse so rickety that visiting sides preferred the bus shelter round the corner. With Johann Rupert, the South African squillionaire, planning to make a 10m splash in the boardroom and a tactician as ingenious as Eddie Jones preparing to take control of the playing side, the balance of power in the Premiership is on the point of shifting.

Even without these significant developments, Saracens would have been big news over the next fortnight. A week today they meet Biarritz in the fifth game of a Heineken Cup pool phase so ferociously competitive it makes last autumn's World Cup look like a gentle stroll at sundown. If they prevail against the curiously buttoned-up Basques, they will travel to Scotland knowing victory over Glasgow will send them into the last eight, probably with home advantage.

But there is, as usual, a fly in the ointment a nasal hair in the camomile tea. It goes by the name of Bristol. Tomorrow's match at the Memorial Ground is important to Saracens for two reasons, the lesser of which is a desire to erase the memory of last week's home defeat by Newcastle at the first opportunity. The greater reason is the increasing congestion at the top end of the Premiership. Sarries may be third as we speak, but with eight sides harbouring legitimate ambitions of a play-off place, two defeats on the bounce could cause untold damage.

Neither Saracens nor Bristol were remotely happy last time out. Alan Gaffney, the man keeping the director of rugby's seat warm for Jones, described the display against Newcastle as "drivel", while Richard Hill, head coach of the West Country club, felt his players let themselves down in losing heavily at Gloucester. With only six Heineken Cup places guaranteed for English sides next season, this is a must-win for both teams.

Gaffney was criticised for omitting key personnel last weekend; tomorrow, they are all back between the shafts. Hill, by contrast, has precious little elbow room on the selection front, thanks to injuries affecting Dan Ward-Smith and Shaun Perry, among others. At least Mark Regan will be restored to his rightful place at the fulcrum of the Bristol pack, with his old mucker Darren Crompton alongside him at tight-head prop. Given Regan's ability to start a row in an empty room and Crompton's mastery of the dark arts, the contest may be just a little on the lively side.

Liveliness of a different variety awaits those making the trip to the Madejski Stadium, where London Irish, always capable of some vibrant rugby, take on the Luke McAlister-inspired Sale, who may well be involved in the fight for silverware come season's end. A couple of seasons ago, Charlie Hodgson won this corresponding game more or less on his own. Hodgson has since fallen on hard times, but now he has a midfielder of McAlister's world-class stamp on his shoulder, all things are possible.

McAlister, by far the most damaging loss to All Black rugby as a result of the New Zealand diaspora formed in the wake of the World Cup, missed last weekend's victory at Leeds with a leg injury, but there was never much doubt he would be pressed into service for this one. As London Irish have midfield issues of their own Shane Geraghty has moved to centre for the injured Seilala Mapusua, with Eoghan Hickey taking over at No 10 the odds on another Sale victory have shortened considerably.

Having won a league game on the road for the first time since the Norman Conquest, there is no reason why Newcastle should not continue their steady improvement with victory over Worcester at Kingston Park tomorrow. Similarly, Wasps will expect a bonus-point victory over Leeds in High Wycombe this afternoon, despite the bad news surrounding their effective wing Tom Voyce, who crocked his knee last weekend, underwent surgery on Wednesday and will now be hors de combat for at least three months.

Which leaves the Harlequins-Leicester squabble at The Stoop. When Dean Richards was running the Midlanders, he hated making the trip to swanky south-west London. Now he is batting for the other side, he must relish this fixture above all others. Quins were quietly impressive at Worcester last week, especially up front, where Leicester like to make it hurt. Place a bet on the outcome, by all means, but do not, under any circumstances, gamble your mortgage on it.

Premiership team news, by David Llewellyn

* Wasps v Leeds (Today, 3pm)

The England flanker Joe Worsley makes his first start for Wasps since the World Cup, but the prop Phil Vickery is out with a calf strain. Leeds give the promising 18-year-old flanker Calum Clark a start.

* Bristol v Saracens (Tomorrow, 3pm)

The England hooker Mark Regan is back in the Bristol team after being rested last week and Neil Brew is in the centre. Andy Farrell is back at centre for Saracens, as is the flanker Richard Hill.

* Harlequins v Leicester (Tomorrow, 1.15pm)

Harlequins will have to give their England No 8, Nick Easter, a late fitness test on a knee injury, so Chris Hala'Ufia stands by. Martin Corry is back at No 8 to captain the Tigers.

* London Irish v Sale (Tomorrow, 3pm)

London Irish have moved the outside half Shane Geraghty to inside centre, naming Eoghan Hickey at No 10. Bob Casey returns to lead the Exiles from the second row. Sale's All Black centre, Luke McAlister, has recovered from a leg injury to play.

* Newcastle v Worcester (Tomorrow, 3pm)

The Newcastle centre Jamie Noon makes his 200th first-team appearance and captains an unchanged team. Lee Dickson, Sean Tomes and Russell Winter all return for bench duties after missing the 22-19 victory over Saracens through illness. A former Falcon, Loki Crichton, replaces Shane Drahm as Worcester's fly-half for the trip to Kingston Park. Crichton is among three changes following the home defeat against Harlequins last time out, with wing Miles Benjamin handed a first Premiership start instead of the injured Marcel Garvey, and prop Darren Morris replacing Matt Mullan.