Saracens fly lone First Division flag

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The Independent Online
England's four-day training camp at Bisham Abbey has reduced this afternoon's English First Division to a solitary fixture, although Orrell v Saracens does very adequately in representing the new professionalism on the eve of the Rugby Football Union's fraught special meeting, writes Steve Bale.

In fact, there was not supposed to be any league rugby today, this being a pre-international weekend. The match at Edge Hall Road, where it seems Orrell will not be playing for much longer, is the only one postponed during the new year freeze to be unaffected by Bisham, although both teams are affected by injuries.

Paul Johnson, the Orrell captain, has a broken finger and is replaced by the Western Samoan Lua Tuigamala, the younger brother of the Wigan rugby league player, Va'aiga.

With Gloucester having beaten West Hartlepool last Saturday while Saracens were losing to Wasps, the London side's visit to Lancashire has taken on a desperate importance since they are now within four points of both Gloucester and the relegation zone, have an inferior points difference and have to go to Kingsholm on the League's final Saturday.

Orrell's path to professionalism is no less ambitious, and as they have always lived with rugby league - specifically Wigan - on their doorstep, they are not to be blamed for seeking a link-up with their neighbours which will see them playing at Central Park by the end of the season, although not today, alas.

More spectacularly, there is every chance of Wigan's high-powered professionals playing professionally for Orrell in their off-season, since any block would presumably be a restraint of trade. Newcastle were taken over by a football club, so why not a rugby league club? Having existed on a shoestring for years, Orrell deserve all the help they can get; they never reckoned they had any from the RFU.

It is a still more critical day in the Second Division, where the exiles' meeting at Sunbury will go far to determine whether London Irish or London Scottish, currently third and second, accompany Northampton into the First Division.

Both are incandescent at reports that the RFU would deny them a place in Europe if they ultimately finished in a qualifying place, especially after seeing last Sunday's Cardiff-Toulouse Heineken Cup final. The narrowly beaten finalists come down to earth today at Treorchy.

n England have called up Richard Cockerill, Damien Hopley and Peter Scrivener as reinforcements for their training squad because of injuries to Mark Regan (thumb), Tim Rodber (knee and ankle) and Phil de Glanville (groin).

n Edward Jones last night resigned as the Welsh union secretary because of his reluctance to work within the new professional dispensation agreed by the International Board and changes introduced by the WRU.