Wasps ring the changes for rematch with Warriors

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The Independent Online

It all seemed so easy for Wasps this time last week; like falling off a log, in fact. As it turned out, the Londoners fell clean off their long unbeaten record at the Causeway Stadium in glamourous High Wycombe and, if they fail to make amends this evening - in wet and windy Bridgend, which makes High Wycombe look like a swanky Parisian arrondissement - their chances of progressing to the business stage of the Heineken Cup will be less than bright.

As Rob Howley, their Lions scrum-half, said yesterday: "This is a massive game for the club." Their opponents, the newly-formed but deeply resourceful Celtic Warriors, have not changed from five days ago, so nothing else can be permitted to stay the same. The Welshmen stood expectation on its head by winning 14-9 with the aid of a late and suspiciously illegitimate try from Aisea Havila, one of the many Tongans who declined to don the national shirt at the World Cup.

Howley, honest and up-front as ever, described the result as a "major upset", while paying the Warriors a good deal of credit for "doing their homework". Wasps have changed a third of their side for the return fixture, and the newcomers - Mark van Gisbergen, Stuart Abbott, Will Green and Jonny O'Connor among them - should certainly make a contribution. But the Warriors have their own ambitions in this tournament, and with good reason.

The right result tonight would give them three wins from four, with a home match against Perpignan and a relatively straightforward visit to the struggling Italians of Calvisano over the next 16 days.

They possess good players in important positions - Gareth Thomas is in outstanding form at centre - and have so many people in form that their coach, Lynn Howells, can afford to make a late choice between two Internationals, Gareth Cooper and Sililo Martens, at scrum-half, and two more, Robert Sidoli and Nathan Budgett, at lock. It is little wonder that their supporters, largely from Pontypridd, are united in their opposition to any merger with the under-performing Cardiff Blues.

There are two more games tonight, and Euro-watchers will be grateful for any light shed on one of the closest, most competitive pool stages yet witnessed in the tournament.

Northampton should wrap up a double over Tony Gilbert's Borders team at Netherdale, even though Matthew Dawson remains conspicuous by his absence. England's World Cup-winning half-back has played less than half an hour's rugby since returning from Australia, and his fitness problems must now be preying on the mind of Clive Woodward as the national coach embarks on his Six Nations calculations.

The Midlanders won comfortably enough last weekend, but their failure to collect a bonus point did not impress Wayne Smith and the rest of the back-room staff at Franklin's Gardens. As a consequence, Nick Beal and Shane Drahm have been relegated to the bench, along with the young scrum-half Johnny Howard. Bruce Reihana, a class act, moves from midfield to full-back, Mark Tucker returns at centre and Mark Robinson, an influential figure since his arrival from New Zealand at the start of the season, reappears in the No 9 shirt after a week's respite from run-on duty.

Meanwhile, Toulouse are clear favourites to crank up the heat on Edinburgh at the top of Pool Two. The holders visit the Neath-Swansea Ospreys with 12 Internationals in their starting line-up and another four on the bench, with two replacements still to be confirmed.

One of the non-Test players is the new centre, the wonderfully named Benoit Baby. Presumably, he is far too young to challenge for a French cap.

Meanwhile, the Sale hooker Andy Titterrell has been suspended for six weeks for some reckless footwork near the head of Eric Miller during his club's victory over Leinster in Dublin last Friday. Titterrell, who played for England in last month's non-cap World Cup celebration match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham, will be out of action until 29 February. The 22-year-old will miss Sale's remaining Heineken Cup group matches against Leinster, Biarritz and Cardiff Blues. On top of that he is also set to sit out three Zurich Premiership games and the Powergen Cup quarter-final against Saracens next month.

Ben Gissing, cited by Sale for an alleged stamp on Andy Sheridan in the same match, was acquitted by a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel.

* Wasps have released Paul Sampson. The former England winger had struggled to regain his first-team place after recovering from a knee re-construction. The 26-year-old was injured during the Dubai Sevens a year ago and was sidelined for almost 12 months before joining Bath on loan last November.

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