Tigers set to rise above turmoil against depleted Sale

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The Independent Online

Fixture planning may be a science, and an exact science at that, but the genius responsible for this season's Premiership schedule clearly has one foot in the realm of high art.

After a month of wonderfully competitive European activity, the strongest club league in the world game resumes tonight with a match between Sale and Leicester at Edgeley Park. After the week these clubs have just had, it is a game made in heaven for two teams in purgatory.

Leicester parted company with their director of rugby, Dean Richards, on Monday, a few hours after Sale had confirmed that Steve Diamond, their assistant coach, had agreed to join Saracens at the end of the season. By the following morning, Sale's chief coach, Jim Mallinder, had been linked by all and sundry with the Leicester vacancy, which had been temporarily filled by Peter Wheeler, John Wells and two old England hands, Neil Back and Martin Johnson. At which point, the Sale owner, Brian Kennedy, publicly acknowledged that Mallinder might well be on his way at the end of the campaign, although he could not say where.

While Richards loyalists were muttering under their breath about Wheeler and Back in particular - as Bath discovered in the late 1990s, the stench surrounding professional fallings-out between old rugby friends is grim indeed - the back-room staff were beginning to disappear. Yesterday, the Tigers announced the departures of the physiotherapist, Mark Geeson, and the fitness coach, John Duggan, and recruited a former player, Darren Grewcock, to oversee the conditioning and rehabilitation operation.

On the face of it, Geeson and Duggan did Leicester quite a favour with their final acts. Daryl Gibson, one of the more influential inside-centres in the business, will return to the Midlanders' midfield this evening following a lengthy interruption caused by the hamstring injury he suffered while playing for the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham before Christmas.

Martin Corry, another hard-headed international, is also fit to start, and will play on the blind-side flank. Suddenly, the Tigers have the semblance of a roar about them. They will certainly take some beating tonight, not simply because the events of the last few days will shame them into a big performance, but because Sale are in pieces on the injury and suspension fronts.

Mark Cueto, Dan Harris, Charlie Hodgson and Bryan Redpath are all hors de combat, as are Andy Sheridan, Iain Fullarton and Pete Anglesea. By way of rubbing it in, Andy Titterrell, their England squad hooker, is still suspended. This is hardly the time to be playing Leicester at full strength, let alone at half-cock.

Last night, Sale confirmed the emergency signing of Scott Benton, the former Gloucester and Leeds scrum-half who was capped by England during the "tour of hell" in 1998. (The fact that Benton spent his one and only international night watching the Wallabies accumulate 11 tries in a grisly 76-0 victory at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium did not do him any favours in career terms). Benton has agreed an 18-month deal at Sale, but the contractual ink dried just a little too late for tonight. Richard Wigglesworth will play at half-back, with the exciting American stand-off Mike Hercus outside him.

Across the Pennines, Leeds have recalled Diego Albanese and Mike Shelley at wing and prop respectively for tonight's match with another of the Premiership's more anonymous outfits, London Irish. Shelley, the club captain at the start of the season but now playing under the more youthful Tom Palmer, replaces the teenager Michael Cusack in the front row, while Albanese takes over from Liam Botham, who is now committed to playing rugby league with Leeds Rhinos. Palmer, it should be said, will be making his 100th league appearance for the Yorkshiremen.

Irish, badly beaten at home by both Wasps and Northampton before the recent tranche of European fixtures, look much stronger for the return from injury of two international loose forwards, Kieron Dawson and Chris Sheasby. They also have their most dependable goal-kicker, Barry Everitt, on the bench in his first appearance at senior level for seven weeks.

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