Bad luck of the Irish

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JUST when it looked as if rugby had got its house in order, with the clubs and Twickenham having an apparent meeting of minds, the whole issue was muddied again with an item in the Northampton match programme yesterday which could jeopardise the Five Nations' Championship.

In the article, the Saints' millionaire backer Keith Barwell was highly critical of the apparent lack of progress in the drawing-up of an agreement between the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs and the Rugby Football Union. So detailed and complex were the legal niceties in the agreement that the clubs saw a funny side to it and referred to it as "the Benny Hill agreement".

Barwell revealed that further meetings and discussions have sadly produced an agreement which in no way reflects what the clubs had agreed in their last meeting at Leicester.

Barwell then wrote: "If things are not sorted out by the end of January, then frankly, the Five Nations is under threat. We are attempting to hold another meeting with the RFU without the lawyers to see if common sense can prevail." He points out that the priority is to talk about a structured season where all internationals are played on the same weekends throughout the Five Nations to avoid clashing with club games.

A more immediate threat to matches was again provided by the icy weather, where for the third week running there were no Courage League Two games.

At least the first division escaped relatively unscathed, allowing Orrell at West Hartlepool and Gloucester's visit to London Irish to go ahead with two matches that could have an overwhelming bearing on who will fill the four relegation spots come season's end.

West Hartlepool overwhelmed Orrell 24-8, scoring four tries to one to collect their second successive victory. Matthew McCarthy gave the visitors the lead with a penalty mid-way through the first half, but West's reply took only a minute to arrive as Russell Earnshaw crashed through the Orrell cover to score.

Liam Botham touched down for his first League try five minutes before the break to put daylight between the teams, while two second-half tries from Phil Harvey and Earnshaw made the result certain - despite Jim Naylor's consolation try for Orrell with 10 minutes to go.

Gloucester kept themselves one step ahead of West, and the fourth relegation spot, with a narrow 21-20 win over London Irish. The Exiles took a narrow three-point lead in at half-time thanks to three David Humphreys penalties, but Gloucester produced three tries in the second-half to win by a neck. It could have been very different for Irish had Humphreys not missed the conversion following a Conor O'Shea try.