Healey can provide cause for cup cheer

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The Independent Online

If the financial backers of the Tetley's Bitter Cup consider themselves to be the sacrificial lambs of English rugby, few will waste their breath persuading them otherwise. After months of damaging conjecture over its future as a tournament worthy of the professional clubs, the competition was granted a reprieve of sorts last summer, only to be marginalised by fixture planners who shifted the final to February. You can just hear the leading players saying to themselves: "I know there's a Six Nations match this weekend, but I'd better keep something back for the big one."

If the financial backers of the Tetley's Bitter Cup consider themselves to be the sacrificial lambs of English rugby, few will waste their breath persuading them otherwise. After months of damaging conjecture over its future as a tournament worthy of the professional clubs, the competition was granted a reprieve of sorts last summer, only to be marginalised by fixture planners who shifted the final to February. You can just hear the leading players saying to themselves: "I know there's a Six Nations match this weekend, but I'd better keep something back for the big one."

This weekend's quarter-final ties are suffering from a crisis in the star-quality department. The Barbarians have chosen this week of all weeks to field one of their most extravagantly gifted sides since Gareth Edwards and company illuminated the rugby landscape almost 30 years ago. Somehow, Sale against Waterloo in front of two men and a dog at Heywood Road does not stack up against Baa-Baas v Boks before an audience of 70,000 at the Millennium stadium.

By way of ensuring that this season's climax will be less a showpiece than a codpiece, some of the best-supported clubs in England have already fallen on stony ground. Bath are out, as are Gloucester and Bristol, and another major concern will disappear when Leicester play Saracens at Welford Road today. Unless the winners meet Northampton in the final, Twickenham may be half-empty on the last Saturday in February.

Still, there should be fun and games in Tiger territory. Austin Healey, not best pleased at his omission from England's starting line-up, will occupy his old position of scrum-half after being nudged out of the No 10 slot by Andy Goode, and it will be fascinating to witness his response. The wing door appears to have been slammed in his face, especially at Test level - Cohen, Luger and Balshaw are the flavour of the moment. Jonny Wilkinson has an iron grip on the England stand-off berth, so a big display against Kyran Bracken may just persuade the Leicester Lip to retrace his steps.

Saracens need a strong performance every bit as badly as Healey, if not more. Leicester, their most obvious rivals for pretty much everything, have put clear daylight between themselves and the rest in the Premiership, and are also in rude Heineken Cup health. The Londoners, on the other hand, are struggling to piece together any sort of run in the league, and are in extremis as far as Europe is concerned. They did not prioritise the knock-out cup this season, but it would be much better than nothing. The tie is too close to call.

Northampton travel to Harlequins with 12 internationals in their starting XV, a proportion that will remain unaffected by Allan Bateman's likely withdrawal with hamstring trouble, thanks to the presence of the Italian centre Luca Martin among the replacements.

After early-season problems that wrecked the Midlanders' chances of retaining their Heineken title, they are making up for lost time. The back five of their scrum - Olivier Brouzet, Tim Rodber, Andrew Blowers, Budge Pountney and Pat Lam - looks positively merciless and, with Garry Pagel back to his formidable best in the front row, Quins will do well to finish within 15 points.

Sale stick with Charlie Hodgson, the England under-21 squad member, at outside-half for tomorrow's derby with Waterloo, while Newcastle welcome back the reassuring figure of Wilkinson for their second meeting with London Irish in five days. Marius Hurter, the former Springbok prop, is also fit, so the Falcons are clear favourites to make amends for Tuesday's misfire.

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