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Cov ready for Saints challenge; RUGBY UNION.

Byline: By JOHN WILKINSON andy_turner@mrn.co.uk

COVENTRY complete their pre-season programme against Northampton tomorrow with their third game in the space of eight days at the Butts Park Arena.

After a 45-0 win over Aberavon last weekend and Tuesday's gutsy 28-18 defeat by a strong Bristol side, head coach Mike Umaga sees this game as a test of his squad's mental strength as much as physical.

"I expect Northampton to be somewhere in between the two teams we have played", said Umaga. "The boys have had a hard week and it's whether they are up to the mental challenge, but they are all still hungry.

"I'm pretty sure Northampton will come with some air of arrogance, and with one more game to go for us it's a test of our character and a case of adding on to what we have already done."

Cov will not finalise their side until after a training session this evening, but there were no injuries reported from the Bristol game and flanker Gareth Gravell, who sat out Tuesday with a calf problem, and winger Kurt Johnson, back from World Cup duty for Barbados, are both in the running.

"There's good competition for places which is what the game is all about," added Umaga.

"We are putting pressure on ourselves within the squad and it's healthy at the moment.

"The boys love the way we are playing. If they haven't got the ball in their hands in attack they are hungry to get it back in defence, and we have added an aggressive edge to our game."

Northampton field a blend youth and experience in a side captained by centre Andy Vilk, who will fly back from Ireland tomorrow morning after benching for Saints in their game tonight against Munster along with centre Rhodri Davies, hooker Chris Budgen and lock Alex Rae.

Rae, a former Barkers Butts colt who made his senior county championship bow for Warwickshire last season, partners Grant Seely - approaching 250 first-team games for Saints - in the second row.

The pack also includes Scottish international Ross Beattie at No.8 and ex-Cov colt Ben Lewitt, who joined Northampton at the end of last season from Bedford. Scrum-half Johnny Howard has played 55 first-team games.

Northampton: Ben Patston; Ashley Maggs, Andy Vilk (capt), Rhodri Davies, Paul Diggin; Dan Lavery, Johnny Howard; Luke Harbutt, Chris Budgen, Steve Taylor, Grant Seely, Alex Rae, Ben Lewitt, Jamie Supple, Ross Beattie. Reps: Michael Wernham, Moray Lowe, Tom Powell, Dan Falvey, Julian Bishop, Tom Elliot, Adam Barnard. Start: 3.00pm

RUGBY Lions started their pre-season build-up with an encouraging 11- try performance at Leamington in a game of four 20-minute quarters.

Apart from the second period, Lions dominated possession and scored tries through new signing James Wadey (2), Jamie Tyers (2), David Clements, Karl Braband, Andy Regan, Danny Facer, Rust. Phil Greenbury and Tim Douglas. Leamington responded with a late consolation try.

Lions face Welsh visitors Llangennech tomorrow at Webb Ellis Road (1.30 pm, admission free) with a barbecue to follow.

Hooper lands an England call-up

OLD Leamingtonians' Jason Hooper is among nine Midlands players included in a 27-man England Deaf squad which will take on Japan for the first time at Maidstone on Sunday (5pm).

The England side played their first game in October 2003, losing 16-3 to France, and since then have taken part in four other internationals against Wales and France.

Under International Deaf Rugby Organisation regulations, players with a combined average hearing loss of 25 decibels or more in both ears are eligible.

The England Deaf Rugby Union was set up to enable deaf and hard of hearing players to get together, enjoy rugby and be able to participate in every aspect - whether training, taking part in matches, or knowing socially that there are no communication barriers in the sport.

CAPTION(S):

FULL FLIGHT: Gareth Gravell (right) is in the running for a Cov return against Northampton. Picture: MICHELLE SPERRY D27367_17
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Aug 19, 2005
Words:662
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