Leicester Tigers have had their claws in the Allied Dunbar Premiership crown since mid-March and today they have the chance to put the bite on their rivals when they take on Sale at Heywood Road.
The Cheshire club is languishing next from bottom in the table having won one of their last eight Premiership matches; Leicester, in contrast, are bidding for their ninth successive league win.
With nearest rivals Northampton looking footsore after marching on three fronts - league, Tetley's Bitter Cup and Heineken European Cup - and facing a rejuvenated Bath at Franklin's Gardens, a near full-strength Tigers side is determined to wrap things up as quickly and as efficiently as possible, beginning with victory this afternoon.
Dean Richards, the team manager, said: "We are going to Sale to win. I do not care by how many points, just as long as we get the match points - the only ones that matter. We are in the driving seat at the moment, but there are still three teams in contention for the title, so we are not going to take anything for granted."
If Leicester were to win the league they would become the first club in the professional era to win back-to-back Premiership titles. It is a feat that the club has been trying to play down, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Tigers are pulling clear of the field.
For all that, Sale are not all doom and gloom. Adrian Hadley, their director of rugby, said yesterday: "We have been playing better in recent weeks, during which time we have been able to field a fairly settled side. Bath's winning margin last week [30 points] was not a fair reflection of how we played."
An exhausting climax to the season is beginning to take its toll on third-placed Northampton and they have a clutch of injuries. Matt Dawson (ribs), flanker Budge Pountney (broken nose, stomach bug, ankle, knee and shoulder niggles), Jon Sleightholme (shoulder injury), Allan Bateman (ribs) and Martin Scelzo (thigh strain) are all on the casualty list.
Saints' director of coaching, John Steele, sounded resigned when he conceded: "Matt [Dawson] is very doubtful. He will have a fitness test but he is unlikely to play."
The same goes for the Wales centre Bateman, who is rated as only 50-50. The unfortunate Sleightholme is definitely out. The injury to his shoulder joint sustained in the surprise defeat at Harlequins in midweek has necessitated an operation today.
Ominously for Saints, second-placed Bath are just about at full strength. They have recalled the England A flanker Angus Gardiner, but are otherwise unchanged for the fourth successive match, Mark Regan having recovered from a leg injury.
Gloucester's title hopes have been written off, but they are still in the race for a place in Europe, though their cause has not been helped by a crisis at hooker. Chris Fortey is ruled out with a groin strain, while regular Neil McCarthy has suffered a rib injury and is a doubt. The Moroccan Jawad Djoudi is almost certain to start, but the Gloucester coach, Philippe Saint-AndrÃ©, may be forced to put the unfit McCarthy on the bench. Wasps' solitary doubt is the England lock Simon Shaw, who has a shoulder injury.
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