Favourites face Kingsholm passion and Kiwi know-how: Rugby Union

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The Independent Online
To Austin Healey, England's walking one-liner, Kingsholm is "only a piece of grass". He might just as well have described Gareth Edwards as "only a scrum-half" or the All Blacks as "only human", for this afternoon he is likely to discover there is no "only" about it.

Had the Pilkington Cup semi-final between Gloucester and Leicester been drawn at Welford Road, no one would have given the Cherry and Whites a chance of reaching a Twickenham final for the fourth time in their history. But Kingsholm is a very different kettle of hostility, no matter how gifted or confident the visitors might be.

Eric Miller's return to the Tigers' back row, the magisterial form of Joel Stransky and Will Greenwood in midfield and Healey's own high-octane brilliance at scrum-half ensures that Gloucester go in as underdogs despite their home advantage.

That, however, will be red rag to a bull for the thousands of bellowing beer-swillers who sardine their way into the Kingsholm Shed today. "We won't worry about the crowd," Healey asserted yesterday. Brave words indeed.

Gloucester have not lost a competitive home match to English opposition since late September, when Bath turned them over in a high-scoring encounter. Bob Dwyer, the Leicester coach, might have done well to speak to one or two Bath men this week, not so much about this season's league match as the three titanic semi-finals the West Country rivals contested at Kingsholm between 1985 and 1992. Bath were in their pomp then and won the lot, but each of those matches was as tight as a tourniquet: 11-10, 6-3 and 27-18 after extra time.

"We are not world-beaters, but there will be 12,500 extremely vocal people packing Kingsholm to the rafters and that must work in our favour," said Mark Mapletoft, the Gloucester stand-off whose goal-kicking contest with Stransky may well decide matters.

"There is so much passion for rugby in this town and it would be a phenomenal feeling to take thousands of supporters with us up the motorway to Twickenham next month."

For Leicester, the game has a make or break feel to it. Having been ordered to pay a second visit to Kingsholm for a postponed league fixture on Tuesday week, the Tigers' double hopes rest as much on their fortitude as their expertise. As Dwyer said yesterday: "This tie starts a spell of seven games in three weeks and I can't see the guys getting a day off from playing or training until the very end of April."

Sale's chances of recording a third straight victory over Harlequins in the other tie at Heywood Road - and, in the process, reaching Twickenham for the first time - received a considerable leg-up when Simon Mannix, the former New Zealand stand-off, confirmed his full recovery from an operation on his nose. As expected, Dewi Morris also returns to the fray to renew one of the most effective half-back partnerships in England this season.

With John Mitchell, another Kiwi, playing some forceful rugby at No 8, Morris knows when he is well off. "John is already a legend at Sale after just this one season as player-coach while Simon is an accomplished performer, a high-percentage goal-kicker who can also organise a back line," the England Grand Slam veteran said. "Playing between those two just increases the respect I have always held for New Zealanders' rugby knowledge."

That hard edge could slam the door on Quins, who spent so lavishly on new players at the start of the season only to find their Courage League ambitions thwarted, not least by homely old Sale. Another defeat this afternoon would leave the ritzy Londoners all dressed up with nowhere to go.