Saints geared up for Wasps clash
April 13, 2007
Northampton boss Paul Grayson accepts his relegation-haunted Saints face a huge task in their quest for priceless Guinness Premiership points against Wasps on Sunday.
The 2000 European champions will play National League One rugby next season if they lose and do not collect a bonus point at Adams Park - then nearest rivals Worcester defeat Madejski Stadium hosts London Irish later in the afternoon.
Should Northampton sting title play-off contenders Wasps or both Saints and Worcester lose, then the relegation issue will not be decided until April 28 when Northampton entertain Irish and Warriors are at home to Saracens.
Saints' visit to High Wycombe is also a dress rehearsal for the clubs' Heineken Cup semi-final clash in Coventry on Sunday week, but domestic matters currently dominate their agenda.
Grayson said: ``Wasps have got quality right across the board.
``They've got some formidable performers in the pack and a lot of pace and athleticism out wide, so it is no surprise they are where they are.
``They play a simple, direct, aggressive game. To counter that, you have got to be up for the fight, and that is what we intend to be.''
Northampton, with only two away wins in the Premiership all season, have at least received a boost with the return of highly-rated centre Jon Clarke.
Clarke suffered a broken ankle just 30 minutes into Saints' opening league game of the campaign against Newcastle seven months ago, but a successful return during a midweek Guinness A League game meant Grayson had no qualms about handing the 23-year-old an immediate first team recall.
Grayson added: ``Jon confirmed on Wednesday what a big miss he has been for us this season.
``He has come back well from a bad break and worked really hard in training to get himself back into contention before the end of the season. I had no hesitation in putting Jon into the starting line-up on Sunday.''
Wasps must win to keep themselves firmly in the play-off picture, and although rugby director Ian McGeechan has rested the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Tom Rees and Alex King, they will start as firm favourites.
Former Northampton chief McGeechan said: ``This game is massive for both teams - we both have a huge amount to play for.
``We know Wasps have got to keep winning if we are going to make the play-offs, and that is our focus on Sunday.''
Worcester, minus suspended lock Craig Gillies, travel to Reading knowing they are in control of their own destiny.
But any thoughts of sixth-placed Irish, who cannot secure a play-off place, going through the motions have been dispelled by Exiles rugby director Brian Smith.
Smith said: ``We will be going all out to win on Sunday afternoon, not only to ensure we stay in sixth place in the league and enhance our hopes of qualification for any European competition that may emerge from the current discussions, but also to send off our departing players in style.''
The likes of long-serving trio Justin Bishop, Barry Everitt and Neal Hatley will head elsewhere this summer, although Worcester will be in no mood to afford them a successful finale.
Saracens, currently fourth, can strengthen their play-off claims by claiming a sixth successive Premiership home scalp when Harlequins arrive at Vicarage Road on Sunday.
Saracens are two points above Wasps, and rugby director Alan Gaffney said: ``At this stage of the season, every game is enormously important.
``We have got ourselves into the position of being in control of our own destiny with just two games remaining.
``There is still a lot of rugby to be played, and potentially 10 points up for grabs. If we can win both games, then we should be in the play-offs. However, that is a big if.
``One win could get us there, but then we would be in the situation of having to rely on other results. We don't want to be in that position, which is why it is important we win on Sunday.''