Double-chasers to give and receive no quarter : Pilkington Cup Final

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The Independent Online
Twickenham will be resplendent today when 75,000 - a world-record attendance in club rugby - witness a fitting Pilkington Cup final between the two best teams in England, both of whom announced last month that they would not be back for more next season.

How strange this rugby world has become with professionalism breaking out all over, and so many people apparently wanting to see it that HQ has been sold out for this match since before the quarter-finals, when Bath's and Leicester's arrival in the final could be no more than a well-educated guess.

This, then, is what the clubs would voluntarily forgo next season and somehow the thought of their own incestuous cup competition culminating in a game at, say, Wembley does not have the same allure. Always provided the Rugby Football Union does not find a way of overshadowing today's august occasion, this fundamental and rather awkward truth will be handsomely revealed.

Given the unpredictability of the RFU/clubs dispute - you know, the one about how professional club rugby is to be controlled and financed - nothing about cup-final day should be taken for granted. Indeed, it needs only a 12-month hindsight to see that Bath's display in thrashing Wasps in the 1995 final was largely forgotten because the union chose that very day to depose Will Carling as England captain.

If we can forget the politicking for one afternoon, we could - should - be in for a treat. But alas for optimism, matches between Bath and Leicester habitually promise more than they deliver, the awful 1994 final being a case in point, but if for once the theory of a fascinating clash of styles could be matched in practice, it would be a grand finale.

What fun it is for Dean Richards to pretend that his Leicester side, who have built results and reputation on immovable and to an extent immobile forward play, should anticipate quite the opposite. "We need a fast and open game and that's what we play at Leicester week-in week-out," he quipped for the benefit of television viewers the other day.

Doubtless the final could do with being "fast and open", but not withstanding the consummate finishing of their wings Rory Underwood and Steve Hackney, the Tigers should not be expected to contribute greatly in that respect. Back in the real world, Richards offers this nugget: "We won't reveal our tactics, but everyone knows where our strength lies."

So at least Bath know what to expect. "They've taken a lot of flak for their style, but as they've dealt effectively with us in recent matches, we can't criticise them," Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, said. Whatever a neutral's opinion of this type of rugby - and there is no such thing as a neutral at Welford Road when Richards is rumbling up the middle of the field - it is undeniably effective, so much so that the only unpredictable thing about it is that now and again Leicester lose.

Last Saturday, Harlequins achieved what only Bath and Saracens had done this season, and the league title duly reverted to Bath from Leicester. Experience, both their own and of others, teaches the reinstated champions that although they have to match the muscular Tigers at close quarters, the optimum course is actually to avoid close quarters in the first place.

"Anyone looking at the two sides would realise that the way one might think they could beat the other would be to keep the game fairly close, and the other side might play in a more flexible manner," Brian Ashton, the Bath coach, said. No prizes for guessing which is which.

The absence of the injured Jeremy Guscott and Ben Clarke will disturb Bath more than they might care to admit, but Bath's strength has always been more collective than individual. With the Double in their sights, it is unthinkable to back against them.

PATHS TO FINAL: Bath: Fourth round Northampton (h) 12-3. Fifth round Wakefield (a) 16-12. Quarter-final Bristol (a) 19-12. Semi-final Gloucester (h) 19-10. Leicester: Fourth round Exeter (a) 27-0. Fifth round Saracens (h) 40-16. Quarter-final Harlequins (h) 24-9. Semi-final London Irish (a) 46-21.

BATH v LEICESTER

at Twickenham

J Callard 16 J Liley O

J Sleightholme 15 S Hackney N

P de Glanville capt 14 S Potter M

A Adebayo 12 R Robinson L

A Lumsden 11 R Underwood K

M Catt 10 N Malone J

A Nicol 9 A Kardooni I

D Hilton 1 G Rowntree A

G Dawe 2 R Cockerill B

J Mallett 3 D Garforth C

M Haag 4 M Johnson D

N Redman 5 M Poole E

A Robinson 6 J Wells F

E Peters 8 D Richards capt G

S Ojomoh 7 N Back H

Referee: S Lander (Irby, Wirral). Kick-off: 3.0 (Sky Sports)

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