Fixture pile-up haunts Bath and Leicester

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

Having exercised their right to postpone again the postponed Courage league games rescheduled for 13 January, a pre-international Saturday, Bath and Leicester find themselves with precisely the same problem on the second new date, 9 March.

Instead of being expected to face Gloucester and Sale, respectively, when their England players are in the middle of a four-day training weekend at Bisham Abbey one week before the opening of the Five Nations against France, they now have to do so one week before the championship concludes against Ireland.

This is a daft piece of fixture planning made on the assumption that the England squad will not have a weekend get-together before playing the Irish. Whatever the case, the last thing Jack Rowell, the England manager, wants is to have his players involved in games a week before an international. He will name his team for Paris on Sunday.

A new appeal can be expected, the chaos caused by one weather-affected round of league matches demonstrating how fortunate English rugby has been with postponements since the Courage Championship was instituted eight years ago. In Wales things are so bad that the top Heineken League clubs want the Welsh to extend the season.

Northampton, whose England representation meant they were also able to appeal the new date for their Second Division fixture against Moseley, have settled on 27 January, when neither they nor their opponents will be in the Pilkington Cup.

Yesterday's fifth-round draw at Twickenham gave Rob Andrew the earliest possible return to the big time by giving Newcastle a home tie against Harlequins, twice winners, as soon as the former England outside-half becomes eligible for competitive rugby. Today he is moving house from London to the North-east.

The Newcastle coach, who has so far appeared in a couple of friendlies for his new club, will become the player-coach once he has served his 120 days. He and Peter Walton, the Scotland flanker formerly with Northampton, are the only two of Newcastle's recent signings to be able to face Quins.

Andrew's old Wasps team-mates will give Winnington Park, the Cheshire club lying fourth in the Fifth Division North, their biggest day when they travel to Northwich. Here rugby's two worlds will be in perfect juxtaposition; the local lads each pay pounds 30 a year for the privilege of club membership and, against Wasps as every Saturday, a pounds 2 match fee. From next season match fees will be something Wasps receive.

Winnington Park's best-known product, the retired England scrum-half Dewi Morris, is one of their coaches. The Fifth Division's solitary survivors anticipate 10 times their usual crowd of 250. "We're going to have to beg, borrow or steal a stand from somewhere," their president, Roy Palin, said.

Twickenham cup draws' mysterious habit of keeping the leading contenders apart was maintained by the separation of all the First Division survivors with the exception of Saracens' visit to Leicester, whose league-title defence was seriously undermined when they lost away to Sarries in November.

The prospect is seven First Division quarter-finalists, with Leeds of the Fourth hosting London Irish of the Second for the right to join them. Bill Bishop, the Rugby Football Union president, pulled out First Division opponents for all the remaining four Second Division teams and Coventry of the Third - which may be unkind to the underdogs but is as kind as can be to the sponsors.

PILKINGTON CUP Fifth round: West Hartlepool v Coventry; Bedford v Bristol; Leeds v London Irish; Wakefield v Bath; Newcastle v Harlequins; Nottingham v Gloucester; Leicester v Saracens; Winnington Park v Wasps.

Matches to be played 27 January.

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