American Football: Redskin rookies playing for places: Opinions conflict on the American Bowl's worth at Wembley tomorrow. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
WEMBLEY plays host to the seventh annual American Bowl tomorrow when the grid-iron giants of the San Francisco 49ers do battle with those of the Washington Redskins. Actually, battle may be pitching it a bit strong. As pre- season friendlies go this one makes the Charity Shield appear meaningful.

The Americans call such games 'exhibitions' which is just right: a lot on show, but no real atmosphere. Even the hype that traditionally surrounds this fixture seems to be muted this year. Despite the presence of two of the NFL's biggest teams, it is unlikely to sell out.

Washington's participation is significant. The Super Bowl champions have been notably reluctant to join in the jet- setting that has accompanied the globalisation of the sport. Several exhibition games are played abroad every year before things get serious in September, but until now the Skins have preferred to stay in their training camp and concentrate on the season proper.

Joe Gibbs, Washington's wily head coach, did his best to feign enthusiasm in London this week, but in truth he looked like a man in the dentist's waiting room. 'I take the approach that you could get upset about it, but our players asked to do it, I agreed to do it, so we are going to make the most of it,' he said, before adding with a grin: 'Hey, I've got a good, positive attitude - until we lose the game.'

Gibbs, whose superb preparation and coaching have been fundamental to Redskin success, would much prefer to be left alone, with his players and without the distractions. 'If you gave me a choice I probably wouldn't have done this,' he admitted.

If Gibbs and the great British public appear a little underwhelmed, it would be wrong to think the game will not be fiercely contested - a lot of those concerned will be fighting for their careers.

The Redskins flew 78 players into London. By the time the season starts on 6 September their roster will be whittled down to 47. The principal means of advancement is in the pre- season games so, while the established stars will see little action, there will be no lack of commitment from the supporting cast.

Gibbs gave some idea of the kind of scrutiny they will be under. The game is taped, and on Monday morning the Redskins' battery of coaches will sit down and analyse it. 'We'll grade it, write down all of our comments on every guy. And then we all look at it again with them. Every play.' What does the young hopeful have to do to make an impression? 'Make big plays. Run, block, knock people down. You look for somebody to really do something great.'

Gibbs will be particularly keen to find cover for the positions of two veterans, lineman Jim Lachey and cornerback Darrell Green. Brilliant players both, they have been holding out for more money, and the sides appear a long way apart. Asked if this was now a major concern, Gibbs said: 'It became critical a week and a half ago.' One player he will not have to replace is quarterback Mark Rypien who was also holding out, but signed a new contract this week. Rypien will start tomorrow.

As for the 49ers they remain without their quarterback, Joe Montana, whose injured elbow kept him out all last season. Montana still hopes to play a pre- season game. Steve Young, arguably the best back-up around, starts tomorrow.

The last word goes to Gibbs. He may not be delighted to be here, but as the rain poured down on him on the training ground he found some consolation. 'This,' he said, 'is Redskin weather.'

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