White's return blackens mood of relegation-threatened Leeds

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The Independent Online

This is not a pleasant thought, but it needs thinking all the same: by the time Leeds meet Bath in the final of the Powergen Cup at Twickenham three weeks hence, Premiership rugby in Yorkshire's wide acres could be as dead as the proverbial dodo. Should Phil Davies's team - full to overflowing with hardened professionals and blessed with genuine class in a number of areas, but wholly ignorant of the winning arts - fail to take anything from tomorrow's match with Leicester at Headingley, relegation will be more certain than not. And by way of making it extra hard on their hosts, Leicester have named the formidable Julian White in their front row.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it needs thinking all the same: by the time Leeds meet Bath in the final of the Powergen Cup at Twickenham three weeks hence, Premiership rugby in Yorkshire's wide acres could be as dead as the proverbial dodo. Should Phil Davies's team - full to overflowing with hardened professionals and blessed with genuine class in a number of areas, but wholly ignorant of the winning arts - fail to take anything from tomorrow's match with Leicester at Headingley, relegation will be more certain than not. And by way of making it extra hard on their hosts, Leicester have named the formidable Julian White in their front row.

Good news for the British and Irish Lions? Definitely. The tourists will need a tight-head prop of White's quality if they are to stand an earthly of beating the All Blacks this summer. Desperate news for the down-at-heel Tykes? Even more definitely. If ever Leeds needed the table-topping Tigers to head north with half a team - or better still, no team at all - it is now. Instead, they find themselves confronted by the most destructive scrummager in these islands, hell-bent on proving his fitness after a couple of months hanging around the Welford Road physiotherapy department, complaining of neck and shoulder problems.

"Julian has trained tremendously well this week," reported the Leicester coach, John Wells. "If he had turned around to us and said 'Look, this is giving me a few problems', we wouldn't have risked him. But he's hungry to play, he and the medical staff are comfortable with the situation, so let's get him out there and see how it goes. It's not one of these injuries where you say 'Yes, it's cleared up, go ahead'. The back-end of it could hang around for several weeks, but there comes a point where you can play comfortably on it. We think he's at that point now."

Leicester know what it is to lose a Premiership match at Headingley - Leeds beat them in the opening game of the 2002-03 campaign, despite the presence of an all-international pack numbering Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Graham Rowntree, Martin Corry and the All Black flanker Josh Kronfeld among its luminaries. But the Yorkshiremen were in their pomp that season. This term, they have slipped anonymously towards the most southerly point of the table and start the weekend five points adrift of Northampton, who are beginning to string some performances together.

Davies, their head coach, finds himself without his first-choice full-back, Iain Balshaw, and his most aggressive loose forward, Colm Rigney. Both are injured. He has recalled his Scotland internationals, the outside-half Gordon Ross and the prop Gavin Kerr, but this can be no great source of relief, given the physical and emotional battering the Scots took during the Six Nations Championship. All is not lost, but Leeds are getting to the point where prayer is the only realistic option. If that fails to work, one of the great rugby counties can kiss goodbye to professionalism.

Northampton, fresh from a busy week on the recruitment front, leave two Test front-rowers, Tom Smith and Steve Thompson, on the bench for today's meeting with Harlequins, whose happy knack of turning in improved performances against teams weakened by Test calls has put them within a gnat's crotchet of top-flight safety. Worcester, meanwhile, have lost a front-rower of their own - one they would not demote to replacement status in a month of Sundays. Chris Horsman, perhaps the form tight-head in the tournament, has twisted an ankle and misses this afternoon's important match with Saracens at Sixways.

London Irish expect a mighty crowd at the Madejski Stadium for tonight's little rumble with Gloucester, whose chances of turning it into an extremely large rumble are improved by the reappearance of the magnificently manic Olivier Azam in the hooking role. The Exiles pulled in an audience in excess of 20,000 when they hosted Bath this time last season, and with the club still deep in St Patrick's Day mode, that high watermark for the Premiership could be surpassed.

Premiership team news

London Irish V Gloucester

(Today; 5.0)

Irish have Scott Staniforth back on the right wing and the centre Geoff Appleford is back from England Sevens duty. Olivier Azam replaces Wales's Mefin Davies at hooker for Gloucester.

Northampton V Harlequins

(Today; 3.0)

Paul Diggin, Andy Vilk and Darren Fox return for Saints. Harlequins are without Ugo Monye, but the lock Simon Maling replaces Roy Winters on the bench.

Worcester V Saracens

(Today; 2.0)

Worcester's prop Chris Horsman twisted an ankle in training during the week, so Lee Fortey comes in at tight-head. Saracens have Dan Scarbrough back in the starting line-up at full-back.

Leeds V Leicester

(Tomorrow; 2.30)

Tom Biggs is at full-back for Leeds in place of Iain Balshaw. Julian White returns to the tight-head for Leicester and Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Harry Ellis, Ollie Smith, Andy Goode and Geordan Murphy all return.

Newcastle V Bath

(Tomorrow; 3.0)

Jamie Noon, Stuart Grimes and Galo Alvarez Quinones return for the Falcons. Bath's scrum-half Andy Williams is at outside centre and the flanker Gareth Delve makes a first start of the season.

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