Rugby Union: Pienaar's desire fuels Sarries' cup ambition

THEY may have just experienced the rugby equivalent of 15 rounds with Lennox Lewis - or, to use a more brutal metaphor still, 15 minutes of negotiation with Cliff Brittle - but Saracens fervently believe they are in sufficiently good shape to survive the Northampton ambush at Franklins Gardens this afternoon. This much is certain: if Tony Diprose's weary foot soldiers are to prove as good as their word and beat a fresher, fitter Saints side to a place in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final, they will need to fly successfully in the face of all sporting logic.

There is only one thing more exhausting than winning a titanic top-of- the-table struggle on enemy soil, and that is losing one. Well though they performed at Newcastle on Wednesday night, the Londoners succumbed by five measly points; a result that should, in theory at least, have reduced them to a rag-tag collection of shambling mental wrecks. "They fought us to a standstill, so I can't imagine how they hope to get themselves up for another huge match in so short a space of time," said Steve Bates, the Newcastle coach.

It is probably beyond Northampton's imagining, too. The Saints may have forfeited the influential services of their captain, Tim Rodber, but not even the most determined United Nations weapons inspector would relish a trip to the Franklins Gardens bunker just at the moment. "The place is like a pressure cooker," said Jon Sleightholme, their former international wing, yesterday. "Things are coming to the boil and at two this afternoon, the whole of Northampton will be out there on the pitch with us."

And yet. Saracens have developed an esprit de corps of remarkable depth and potency this season, the result of Francois Pienaar's primal competitive instinct combined with an emotional collective desire to send Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella into retirement with gold medals around their necks rather than gold watches on their wrists. As Pienaar remarked in the aftermath of Wednesday's little epic: "If we play with the same skill and determination we've just showed out there, we can beat Northampton.

"Two games of this magnitude inside 72 hours is, of course, ridiculous, but it's the job of the management and myself to pick everyone up. I have to admit that had we played badly against Newcastle and lost, it would have been terribly difficult to lift the spirits in time. But we didn't play badly; we played at a high pace and showed real commitment. Rugby is often as much about resilience in adversity as quality on the pitch and I think we have the character to respond."

Wasps, who revealed more character than anyone in winning last season's league title, will need to reproduce a fair proportion of it at Loftus Road this afternoon if they are to prevent the dangerous dark horses from Sale reaching their second successive cup final. Unlike Sarries, their weariness has more to do with the dispiriting burden of under-achievement than the ravages of an intensely physical Premiership run-in and in many ways, it is a more corrosive condition.

All the same, the return of Alex King at outside-half, the spectacular form of Simon Shaw in the second row and the pride and passion that habitually oozes from the veins of Lawrence Dallaglio should prove too rich a brew for the northerners, especially now that Simon Mannix has left the club under a cloud and David Rees, the sparky England wing, has given best to a particularly ill-timed groin injury.

An all-London final, then? Probably. But as Dallaglio went out of his way to emphasise earlier this week, form means nothing on last-four day. "Like every game, it's about 80 minutes of effort," he said. "Somehow, though, these particular 80 minutes bring a pressure all of their own."

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