Saracens tackle Tigers without injured Horan

Australian out with foot problem as London club seek to match rugby union pacesetters.
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The Independent Online

Tim Horan will be among a 14,000-plus crowd at Vicarage Road tomorrow for the first of this season's win-or-bust Premiership confrontations, which is far better news for Leicester than it is for the great Wallaby's new muckers at Saracens. Francois Pienaar's superior outfit are not exactly struggling for big names - they can, for instance, afford to demote England's new tight-head prop, Julian White, to the bench for the visit of the league leaders - but there are certain occasions, not least after two unexpected defeats on the bounce, when a team would rather see the world's best centre on the pitch than in the stand.

Tim Horan will be among a 14,000-plus crowd at Vicarage Road tomorrow for the first of this season's win-or-bust Premiership confrontations, which is far better news for Leicester than it is for the great Wallaby's new muckers at Saracens. Francois Pienaar's superior outfit are not exactly struggling for big names - they can, for instance, afford to demote England's new tight-head prop, Julian White, to the bench for the visit of the league leaders - but there are certain occasions, not least after two unexpected defeats on the bounce, when a team would rather see the world's best centre on the pitch than in the stand.

Horan was officially welcomed into the Saracens fold yesterday, but an unusual and doggedly persistent foot condition will keep him off the paddock for another month at least. "I'd be happier if he was fit and ready to go," admitted Pienaar, the Saracens head cook and bottlewasher. "A 50 per cent record from four games is not the sort of welcome I was hoping to extend to Tim and as this is a such a massive game for the club, a game in which all the pressure is on us, it would have been reassuring to see him out there."

Reassuring indeed. Horan, a double World Cup winner and an absolute Rembrandt of a midfield artist, would certainly have given the Tigers something to ponder.

Still, he has signed for two years and fully intends to match the standard set by Saracens' previous overseas signings, from Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella to Roberto Grau and Pienaar himself.

"I consider Michael to have been the finest Wallaby I ever played with, and I talked a good deal to him before deciding to come here," said the 30-year-old Queenslander, soon to be joined in this country by two fellow countrymen, David Wilson and his great friend Jason Little. "Why come here now? Because it's the right time. I'd been involved with the Wallabies for more than a third of my life and it was pretty hard to give the shirt away, but I wanted to go out on my own terms and if I've made the decision a year early... well, it's better than making it a year too late."

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the odd Little Englander will mumble something about yet another ex-international pitching up in the shires with one eye on a pension and the other on a nice little coaching sinecure. If that happens, the mumblers will find themselves picking on the wrong bloke. As Nigel Wray, the financial muscle behind the Saracens experiment, eloquently put it yesterday: "When Michael Lynagh came to the club, I said he would shine like a beacon over rugby in London. And he did. Tim will do the same.

"These overseas players have put Saracens on the map; if anyone really thinks that players of the calibre of Lynagh, Sella or Horan came here for a pension, they totally misunderstand who these people are. If there was any of that attitude in them, would they have achieved what they did at international level? I don't think so."

Should Saracens lose tomorrow, not even Horan's magisterial presence will make them feel good about themselves as they move towards the Heineken Cup and the mother of all qualifying scraps with Toulouse, Cardiff and Ulster.

Apart from anything else, they may be as many as 12 points off the Premiership pace - not the sort of advantage Leicester are in the habit of frittering away. The Tigers head down the M1 without the injured Geordan Murphy, perhaps the most exciting young back in the Premiership, but have Tim Stimpson at their disposal once again. Sarries, meanwhile, promote Brett Sparg to the right wing ahead of Darragh O'Mahony and pair two strong Lions candidates, Scott Murray and Danny Grewcock, in the second row.

Of the other clubs at the right end of the table, second-placed Sale make changes in midfield and at the coalface for today's intriguing game with North-ampton, whose savage injury problems must make last May's Heineken Cup triumph at Twickenham seem lost in the mists of time. The northerners recall Adam Black and Joe Clark to their front row after suffering a serious buffeting at the scrummage from Bristol on Wednesday night - fortunately for them, Bristol were entirely hopeless in virtually ever other department of the game - while Mel Deane gets the nod over Jos Baxendell at outside centre.

And what of Bristol, pray? Well, the news is not good. Lee Best, Leigh Davies, Darren Crompton and Craig Short remain hors de combat, and have been joined on the physio roster by Alex Brown, who damaged knee ligaments while fighting a lone battle against Sale, and Simon Fenn, who picked up shoulder and rib damage in the same match. Garath Archer, the England lock, is back, however, as is Spencer Brown, by some distance the quickest wing at the club. London Irish, who visit the Memorial Ground tomorrow on the back of an eye-opening victory over Saracens, are predictably unchanged.

It is highly unusual for a Gloucester-Bath derby not to claim top billing, but the Cherry and Whites are still struggling for players - Dave Lougheed, hauled out of retirement, will be in the line-up at Kingsholm this afternoon -and their rivals have yet to locate anything resembling third gear, let alone overdrive. Mark Regan returns to the Bath front row, but Iain Balshaw remains bench-bound.

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