Stout challenge faces Exiles

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The Independent Online

With London Irish, it is either famine or feast, and the club is currently tucking into the latter. Having gorged themselves on Northampton and Saracens with 14 tries and more than 100 points, the Exiles moved into second place in the Zurich Premiership and today play the team above them, Leicester, at the Madejski Stadium. There is incentive enough to beat the Tigers, but Guinness are providing another goal. If the Irish are in the top four of the Premiership on Christmas Day, they will be presented with a golden keg. If they are not, the players have agreed to serve lunch to Guinness employees in the staff canteen at the Park Royal Brewery in London.

The arrival this season of the South Africans Brendan Venter and Gary Gold, the former as player-coach, the latter technical coach, has seen the Irish play an exhilarating brand of rugby, a regular feature being the complete reshuffle of the front row during matches. Some of the younger players, like the stand-off Bary Everitt, are making names for themselves while older hands, Chris Sheasby, Naka Drotske and Steve Williams, are getting their second wind.

However, not everything in the Irish garden is rosy. Glasgow survived a late burst of heavy pressure yesterday to seize a place in the Celtic League semi-finals at the expense of Connacht in Galway. Following their 34-29 victory, they now face a return trip to Ireland to take on Leinster at Donnybrook next weekend. The opposing fly-halves, Eric Elwood and Tommy Hayes, each clocked up 19 points but the Scots held the edge after crossing for four tries to their hosts' three.

Bath, who visit Wasps this afternoon in the Premiership, have welcomed the Australian hooker Michael Foley to the Recreation Ground following his final Wallabies appearance in last week's 49-35 victory over the Barbarians. Mike Catt should reclaim the No 10 shirt today after suffering a knee injury in England's victory over South Africa last weekend, but they will be without their captain Dan Lyle, who is on duty with the United States against the Springboks. Wasps, the Premiership's bottom club, look set to select the former Great Britain rugby league wing, Martin Offiah, on the bench after his recent debut appearance as a replacement against Gloucester.

Richard Hill, Kyran Bracken and Scott Murray are all set to return for Saracens at Bristol, whose former England lock, Garath Archer, begins a three-week suspension. Northampton, who will confirm the appointment of their new coach Wayne Smith tomorrow, await late fitness tests on Matt Dawson and Budge Pountney ahead of their visit to Newcastle, who must do without the England fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, due to a thigh strain.

Scott Gibbs recorded a captain's hat-trick of touchdowns to earn Swansea their first home victory of the Welsh-Scottish League season at the fourth attempt. The former Wales and Lions centre, who has retired from Test rugby, went over twice in the last 11 minutes to seal a 22-14 victory which lifted the All Whites, who parted company with their coach John Plumtree last week, to sixth in the table.

The leaders, Boroughmuir, kept their BT Scotland Premiership title hopes on course with a hard-fought 17-14 home success over Glasgow Hawks. Meanwhile, second-placed Hawick stayed within two points following a 19-6 home win over Heriot's FP and Melrose also remained in touch by edging hosts Kirkcaldy 13-11.

Rotherham remain three points behind the National League One leaders Worcester despite going over eight times in their 55-10 home win over Manchester. Worcester maintained their advantage by seeing off visitors Rugby 30-5.

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