Evans `in limbo' at Saracens

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

Blood on the walls at Saracens, rampant neurosis at Leicester and Harlequins, acute anxiety at Wasps. Full-time rugby may have seemed like a barrel of laughs last autumn as scores of newly professionalised players stretched out on the physio's couch and pondered ways of spending their money, but the novelty is fast wearing off now that payback time has arrived with a vengeance.

It is not much fun for the coaches either, especially those charged with securing some sort of return on the multi-million pound investments of their employers. As Mark Evans and Rob Cunningham discovered after Saracens' defeat at Sale on Tuesday - a result that erased any lingering hope the Londoners may have harboured of a lucrative place in next season's Heineken Cup - business is business.

Saracens' decision to give Francois Pienaar a free hand as player-coach leaves Evans in limbo. He remains director of rugby - "contractually speaking, my position hasn't changed," he said yesterday - but with South Africa's World Cup-winning captain now calling all the shots that matter, the chain of command has been turned on its head. Evans will meet with club officials tomorrow to discuss his revised role.

Cunningham, meanwhile, has relinquished his part-time assistant coaching role at Enfield - a venue Sarries may soon abandon in favour of a ground- share at Watford football club - and is now seeking pastures new. "Until now, my outside business interests have prevented me from committing myself wholly to rugby, but I'm now keen to get involved somewhere on a full- time basis," said the former Bath and Scotland A hooker who coached Bristol to a best-ever top four finish in 1993.

On the face of it, then, Sarries could do without a visit to Leicester today: Welford Road is an awkward enough proposition for a side in the pink, let alone one in the mire. But the Tigers, weakened by injuries to Austin Healey, Joel Stransky, Will Greenwood and Stuart Potter, are still reeling from three defeats in a week and are uncomfortably aware that a place in Europe is by no means a certainty. By contrast, Sarries are at full strength for the first time in more than a month.

Quins, meanwhile, do their Christians in the Colosseum bit at Kingsholm, where Gloucester are proving rather less generous-spirited than the average Roman gladiator. "We'll be at battle stations," admitted Dick Best, the Quins coach. Gloucester drop Mike Peters from the right wing and play Audley Lumsden there instead, while Jason Leonard returns to captain the visitors.

Given the astronomical odds against Orrell, the bottom club, winning at Bath this afternoon, it is most unlikely that Wasps can tie up the Courage league title by beating Sale at Loftus Road tomorrow.

Indeed, Lawrence Dallaglio's side will be hard-pressed to win anyway, thanks to the extraordinary team spirit developed by John Mitchell since his switch from Waikato to Cheshire. If Sale leave Shepherds Bush with the points, Wasps would have to win at Northampton and Harlequins to make sure of the championship.

In Wales, Arwel Thomas was hopeful of returning to Swansea's title-chasing side at Newbridge this afternoon following surgery on the knee ligaments he damaged eight weeks ago. There was good news for the Lions, too, after the latest medical bulletin on Neil Jenkins suggested the Pontypridd captain was close to a full recovery from a broken left arm.

Geoff Cooke, the former England and Lions manager, has signed a four- year contract at Bedford to become the club's full-time chief executive from July.

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