Bracken backs down again

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It would take a seismic shift for Leicester to release their hold on the Courage Championship when it ends this afternoon because, although Dean Richards is the only England Tiger to be playing, Bristol are still further from their own first choice.

In fact if Jack Rowell, the England manager, has an interest in the proceedings at Welford Road it is less because a Leicester win will take the trophy from his own Bath than because once again Kyran Bracken, the England scrum- half, is missing from the Bristol line-up.

Rowell insisted on his players' being excused over-exposure during April as they build towards the World Cup. Hence today's absence of his Leicester players and Northampton's England forward pair of Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber, even though the Saints' First Division survival depends on their winning at West Hartlepool.

But the manager did not have in mind that the World Cup squad would not play at all, and Bracken's back strain has seen to it that his most recent activity was the Grand Slam match against Scotland six weeks ago.

His absence means that by the time England open in South Africa against Argentina on 27 May Bracken will have had no match-practice for 10 weeks.

Rowell's three Harlequins have all been saved for the final push against relegation at Gloucester. After yesterday's retirement announcement, this will be Brian Moore's farewell club match, his side needing a draw to preserve their status, though a defeat coupled with a Northampton win in the North-east would see Quins down.

"I had to tell the Harlequins team and supporters before the match," Moore explained. "I think we're good enough to win but if we lost and Northampton were to win Harlequins would go down. If I made my decision public then I might be accused of deserting a sinking ship."

Leicester's inclusion of Richards allays concern that the rib injury which forced him off during the Scotland game is more serious than had been admitted.

The outcome of Bath's game against Sale will be academic in the event of a Leicester victory, though Bath's own experience in 1990 - when they forfeited the title at Saracens - keeps hope faintly alive. Gloucester needed to win the final fixture but unexpectedly lost at Nottingham. The trophy passed to Wasps.

Leicester's - and Harlequins' - destiny is in their own hands, whereas in Wales Cardiff do not really need to beat Newport at the Arms Park to complete their first Heineken League title, since they lead Pontypridd not only by two points but by an ineradicable try margin of 20.