Amateurs promote expansive approach

David Llewellyn on two small clubs' big day in rugby union's Pilkington Cup fifth round
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The Independent Online
This morning a freelance helicopter pilot and a railway police officer will be among the shoal of hopeful amateurs and part-timers preparing for the biggest day of their rugby lives when they will try to topple the big fish in the Pilkington Cup fifth round.

There are just a few small fry left in the competition, swimming against the tide of professional clubs, a tide which generally overwhelms the best efforts of the lesser lights. But that is not to say that Wigton's Grant Lawrence, a former Royal Navy helicopter pilot, and the Reading hooker Scott Perkin, who works for the railway police, will not be trying their damnedest to arrest the progress of Moseley and Saracens respectively.

Both clubs boast an expansive style. Lawrence has scored 14 tries on the wing this season, while 24 Reading players have got on to the scoresheet to date. "At Wigton we play a good running game," Lawrence said. "We have a mobile set of forwards and the backs like running straight, hard and true."

It is no different for Reading. With such a large list of try-scorers theirs is also an expansive game and they promise today will be no different. Mike Tewkesbury, their director of coaching, said: "We believe in getting into the opposition half as quickly as possible, but with the ball in hand. Our policy is to involve all team members in the game and we won't change that."

Although they are at home, Reading's task against the big-spending First Division club, who boast Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella in their line- up, looks by far the more onerous. Third Division Reading have just two full-time professionals in their squad, compared with Saracens' dozen.

Those two full-timers are fairly impressive though. The scrum-half Andre Bachelet, who has scored four tries, including two in the previous round, and the centre Mark Scharrenberg are US Eagles having each won almost 20 international caps. But while they are paid between pounds 25,000 and pounds 30,000 each, Saracens have acquired their big names for much bigger money. Francois Pienaar, the former South African captain who joins after Christmas, will reportedly pick up pounds 500,000 in his two and a bit seasons with the north London club.

Wigton have no professionals and Ray Graham is the director of coaching of the lowliest club in the competition, they are currently second in North One, the equivalent of a fifth division. Graham only took up the coaching duties (unpaid of course) at the start of the season, but already their direct, running game has set the north alight.

"It's Ray's coaching that has lifted Wigton," said Lawrence, who is trying to get his commercial flying career off the ground. "If you talk to supporters they will tell you it is a long time since they have seen rugby like this played at Wigton. I am really enjoying it. I know I'll get the ball in a match and I've been averaging almost a try a game."

Graham, 46, who has played in all eight forward positions, believes in giant-killing. He was captain of the Wigton side that felled Sale when Steve Smith and Fran Cotton were around.

Cotton was so angry after that 24-7 preliminary-round defeat that he kicked the changing-room door (the club have since had the mark framed).

Graham's philosophy is simple. "If we kick we lose control," he said. "Anyway our fly-half Tane Manihera can't kick very well." The Maori, signed as an amateur from rugby league side Carlisle Raiders, is certainly not afraid to run the ball from his own 22 according to his team-mates.

There are ambitious plans afoot for Wigton to amalgamate with the Raiders, but having also acquired a former player of theirs, the centre Matt Elliott, who has improved immeasurably since his return from the 13-man code, it looks as if they are well down the line to pool playing resources at least.

Graham is positive about the tie. The two sides last met in the competition in the 1979-80 season, immediately after toppling Sale. On that occasion Wigton lost at home 7-3 - "to a try that wasn't," claims their secretary, Malcolm Sunter

This time Graham points out: "We are better prepared. Moseley are still trying to build their team. We are also on a run having won our last 12 games. Ours is a side that believes in itself."

Down at Reading, Tewkesbury is more cautious. "The days of Cup upsets are going," he said. "There is a vast gulf opening between the First and some of the Second Division clubs and the rest. The professionals can train day in, day out, improving and grooving techniques and ball skills. But we respect Saracens and we feel they are a side we can learn from."

So there you have it. Reading expect to learn from their experience.

Wigton are bent on teaching Moseley a lesson.