Sheridan injury rare blessing for Lions as play-offs drag on

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The Independent Online

By rights, it should be done and dusted. The Premiership trophy should be back in familiar surroundings at Welford Road, while those ultra-competitive spirits from Wasps should be in a monastery somewhere in Tibet, contemplating the humiliating events at Leicester last weekend. Sale should be congratulating themselves on a job well done - Philippe Saint-André may not speak the Queen's English like an Old Etonian, but he certainly communicates with his players - while Gloucester should be resting up ahead of the summer from hell after a season bordering on the lamentable.

By rights, it should be done and dusted. The Premiership trophy should be back in familiar surroundings at Welford Road, while those ultra-competitive spirits from Wasps should be in a monastery somewhere in Tibet, contemplating the humiliating events at Leicester last weekend. Sale should be congratulating themselves on a job well done - Philippe Saint-André may not speak the Queen's English like an Old Etonian, but he certainly communicates with his players - while Gloucester should be resting up ahead of the summer from hell after a season bordering on the lamentable.

Instead, all four clubs - not to mention Newcastle, another side in dire need of a breather - are still going at it, hammer and tongs; indeed, three of them could still end up as champions. It makes no sense at the end of a 22-match programme, particularly in Lions year. Sir Clive Woodward, follicularly challenged at the best of times, must be removing tufts of hair from other people's heads as he awaits the inevitable rash of injuries over the next week.

The one piece of good news Woodward received yesterday was that Andrew Sheridan, one of the props bound for New Zealand later this month, is already crocked. Not badly, you understand; he has a bad ankle, the poor petal. But he is sufficiently incapacitated to be unavailable for this afternoon's Premiership semi-final at Wasps. Given the recent knee problems suffered by Graham Rowntree and Matt Stevens, this is a cause for celebration.

Half a dozen Lions have been dragooned into action today - Josh Lewsey, Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio of Wasps; Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and Andy Titterrell of Sale. The man who may become the 45th member of the largest squad in history, some character by the name of Wilkinson, plays against Gloucester in tomorrow's wildcard semi-final at Kingsholm. Next weekend, when the finals of both mini-tournaments are played at Twickenham, it will be the turn of Leicester's Lions to risk life and limb in pursuit of something that should already be theirs. If Lewis Moody, Neil Back or Ben Kay disappear down the tubes, Woodward will be less than ecstatic.

One way or another, Sale rather fancy this afternoon's romp around the Buckinghamshire green belt. They would stand a far better chance with the freakishly strong Sheridan in situ, for Wasps are not the best at scrum time, but even so, Saint-André has picked a team capable of matching the champions in speed and dynamism. Jason White, ignored by the Lions selectors when all the available evidence suggested they would clutch him to their breasts, will play at lock, freeing up a back-row place for the more mobile Chris Jones. Magnus Lund, a hot performer throughout the campaign, also features in a loose trio completed by Sébastien Chabal, whose meeting with Dallaglio may well tilt the earth off its axis.

"They have threats all over the field," Dallaglio said. "They have the ability to rack up points very quickly, as they showed last week against Harlequins. We're in for an interesting game."

Warren Gatland, coaching the side on home territory for the last time before heading home to New Zealand, was equally blunt. "I think we need this match," he said. "When you get a performance that is not up to scratch, like ours at Leicester last weekend, it is important to give the players an opportunity to redeem themselves. It was a bit of a blow-out on the scoreboard at Welford Road" - the Tigers won 45-10 - "but a lot of it was down to things that can easily be fixed."

Gloucester go into tomorrow's game without their England flanker Andy Hazell, who requires some rest after a worrying run of head injuries. Luke Narraway, a 21-year-old forward who is expected to sign a two-year extension to his contract in the coming days, will perform the open-side duties. At full-back, Jon Goodridge misses out for the first time this season after picking up a knock against Saracens last week. Olly Morgan has been handed the No 15 shirt

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