Leicester not a priority for London Irish

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The Independent Online
To London Irish of the English Second Division this afternoon falls a problem that has this season proved insoluble to all of the First Division, even Bath: how to stop the remorseless, grinding march of Leicester's magnificent forwards, writes Steve Bale.

As this Pilkington Cup semi-final, even though it is on home turf at sold-out Sunbury, is down the list of Exile priorities, even the Irish themselves do not anticipate a solution. Amazing to relate, given the height of its profile, but this is a game they would just as soon not have to play.

Still, if they dispose of all 200 barrels of Guinness on order (one for every 35 people in attendance) the coffers will have been usefully swollen at a time when the Irish, expecting to join Leicester in the First Division, need every last punt, pound and penny in order to finance next season's new professionalism.

Even if they wanted to reach Twickenham to play the winners of Gloucester's visit to the holders, Bath, it would need more than advance knowledge of how Leicester will play. "If we get tonked at this stage, I wouldn't read too much into it because they've been tonking most teams all season," the Exiles' captain, Garry Halpin, said.

"There's nothing hugely special about it. They have a big pack that mashes everybody up. They take a couple of penalties. The opposition are then forced to try to play rugby, forced to make mistakes, Leicester score a try or two and get a big-margin win.

"It's very basic and they actually don't do a lot, but stopping their basics will be a huge problem." And so it will probably come to pass. Alas for the Irish, Dean Richards is fit to lead the league champions despite having failed to train this week - a state of affairs that generally suits the England No 8 very well.

In the other semi-final Bath's annual progress towards the double brings a return to the Rec for Richard Hill, scrum-half in so many of their triumphs but now Gloucester's coaching director. As he has been constantly reminded this week, for the first time since he first played at Bath for Exeter University he must remember to turn left into the visitors' dressing-room.

There is a poignancy here that comes not only from Hill's playing career but from his acrimonious departure from Bath, where he was chairman of selectors until in effect being frozen out of the club last September. His new team have the England A full-back, Mark Mapletoft, fit for the first time in a year - a return that may also do something about Gloucester's goal-kicking.

No such worries for Bath, who have been spared the embarrassment of deciding which of Mike Catt or Jonathan Callard to play at full-back by an injury to Richard Butland which leaves Catt no alternative but to revert to outside- half. "Jonathan lands those inevitable early penalties and gives the team the necessary cushion and confidence to play attacking, all-round rugby from the start," Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, said. One wonders why, then, was he ever dropped.

It is Swalec Cup quarter-final day in Wales, with Cardiff's visit to Llanelli far and away the biggest tie - and in its way a reminder of the uncomfortable reality that these great clubs are no less disenchanted with the Welsh Rugby Union than the Baths and Leicesters are with their Rugby Football Union.

Unreality, meanwhile, will intrude when the RFU's special meeting in Birmingham tomorrow decides whether to permit the English game to go open. Hang on a minute, didn't that happen everywhere else last September?