Rugby Union: Pressure mounts on Keast and Kingston

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BOB DWYER and Brian Ashton may not be unduly busy just at the moment but their august and authoritative presence on the periphery of the English game is causing any amount of discomfort in Premiership coaching circles. Neither Andy Keast nor John Kingston, who occupy the hot seats at Harlequins and Richmond, have yet attracted a dreaded vote of confidence from their respective chairmen, but both men are in urgent need of a high-profile victory or three.

Dwyer and Ashton joined the ranks of the unemployed during an outbreak of musical chairs over the last fortnight; the ever-insular Leicester board sacked their Australian maestro 12 days ago after a flurry of cloak- and-dagger activity while Ireland bade farewell to their increasingly frustrated former Bath coach on Tuesday. Significantly, both men have indicated their interest in taking on new roles at Premiership level.

Kingston's polyglot blend of exiled Welshmen and southern hemisphere exotics have home advantage against Saracens in this afternoon's Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter-final and the word on the London street suggests that a heavy Sarries win might lead to all sorts of ramifications at the Athletic Ground. Richmond have already lost twice to their title-chasing big city rivals this season and even though Philippe Sella, the great French centre, misses the game with concussion, the visitors can minimise the disruption by moving Ryan Constable to midfield and recalling the in-form Richard Wallace on the left wing.

Harlequins, meanwhile, visit a Bath side struggling to overcome a calamitous injury list that has deprived them of their entire Heineken Cup-winning back row. On paper, Quins have a perfect opportunity to record a first- ever league victory at the Recreation Ground - something that would ease Keast's anxiety and spike the theory that Zinzan Brooke's imminent arrival from New Zealand has more to do with job-hunting than house-hunting.

However, the Londoners must again make do without Thierry Lacroix, the French stand-off - Rob Liley gets another outing in the linchpin position - and despite Chris Sheasby's return to the back row following his "reverse transfer" from Wasps, Bath are running so hot at the moment that another defeat, their sixth in seven outings since the late autumn, is an ominous possibility. If it happens, Keast will have presided over the worst run of league results in Harlequin history.

There is no such neurotic nail-biting at either Northampton or Newcastle, who meet this afternoon in what promises to be the most thunderous Cup quarter-final for some time. Both Ian McGeechan and Rob Andrew have their sides in tip-top condition and the contest is so lavishly garnished with inter-personal conflicts - Tim Rodber against Dean Ryan at No 8, Matt Dawson against Gary Armstrong at scrum-half, Paul Grayson against Andrew at stand-off, Gregor Townsend against Alan Tait at centre - that a Franklins Gardens full house is guaranteed.

Newcastle have yet to lose to an English side this season, but the Saints came as close as any to turning them over three weeks ago before going down 21-17. However, that game left a lasting impression on Ryan, the Newcastle captain, and in his forthright fashion, he will demand a massive physical effort from his side this afternoon.

"We won't be found wanting," he promised yesterday. "The last game was pretty intense and it was played at as high a level as you ever encounter in the club game. But Cup ties have a habit of lifting the intensity still further." With Rodber, the Northampton skipper, confirming that his side had trained in a particularly physical fashion this week, the stage is set for a red-raw fight to the finish.

The on-going argument between the professional clubs and the Rugby Football Union over the make-up of next season's Premiership is not so much red raw as mind-numbingly soporific, but it rumbled on just the same yesterday. No sooner had the English Rugby Partnership confirmed its intention to expand both divisions to 14 teams from August than Cliff Brittle, chairman of the RFU management board, "categorically refuted" any suggestion that a final decision had been made.

"Any valid decision to increase the number of clubs must be considered and agreed by the RFU," said Brittle. "ERP's statement is inaccurate and misleading." When, oh when, will it ever end