Mitchell lies in wait for Harlequins

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The Independent Online
If you can't beat 'em, at least make their lives as difficult as possible. Phil de Glanville may not be in a position to lay a hand on the Pilkington Cup this season, but if Harlequins, Leicester or both slip up at the semi- final stage on 29 March, they will see the England captain's incriminating fingerprints all over the scene of the crime.

De Glanville has not had a great deal to laugh about since being ignored by the Lions selectors last week, but he could barely conceal a mischievous chuckle yesterday. Asked to make the draw for the last four of the knock- out competition, he promptly pulled the rug from under his greatest club rivals by sending Quins to Sale and Leicester to Gloucester. Hell hath no fury like a Bath captain scorned, especially when it comes to Pilkington business.

Leicester, who fairly blasted De Glanville's team out of the competition in the sixth round, can be sure of the most physical of welcomes at Kingsholm; far more intimidating, indeed, than the one they faced at Newcastle on Saturday, even though Gloucester have no intention of asking Dean Ryan to guest for them on a one-off basis. "It will be warm," De Glanville grinned.

But the real fun is likely to occur at Heywood Road, where Quins will play their eighth semi-final in 10 years in front of 5,000 Cheshire supporters sardined into one of the Courage League's more ramshackle grounds. "I don't think Quins will fancy that at all," said De Glanville with a rare degree of relish. "If I were a betting man, I'd have a dabble on Sale."

Quins have already lost to Sale both home and away this season and with John Mitchell, the shrewdly analytical former All Black, now firmly established in the northerners' back row, the Londoners will be more wary than ever. Sale have not lost a match since mid- October and their appointment of Mitchell as player-coach is beginning to look more inspired by the week.

"It will be a great honour to be involved in a semi-final in the North- west, where the occasion should do wonders for the profile of rugby in the area," said Mitchell, who led Waikato to a famous victory over the Lions in 1993 and now renews his battle of wits with Quins' rugby director, Dick Best, who was one of the tourists' coaches that day.

"I suppose the capacity of our ground might be a little small for a match of this magnitude, so we'll explore the option of hosting it elsewhere. Old Trafford, which is just up the road, would be wonderful. But then, the players love their own ground and see it as an advantage. Whatever happens, it will be a tough match for both sides."

Leicester, who have matched their own record by reaching a sixth consecutive cup semi-final, are ungenerously priced favourites at 13-8 on. Sale's emergence as a real force in the English game, not to mention their home draw, is reflected by their odds of 7-2, the same as those of Quins. Gloucester, the first English knock-out champions back in 1972, are the 20-1 outsiders.

In Wales, Neath and Swansea were thrown together in a potentially outstanding Swalec Cup quarter-final tie. Their great west Wales rivals, Llanelli, should have an easier time of it against Pontypool at Stradey Park while Cardiff can expect to defeat South Wales Police at a canter. Ebbw Vale face either Bridgend or Treorchy in the remaining match.

PILKINGTON CUP Semi-final draw: Sale v Harlequins; Gloucester v Leicester (Ties to be played Saturday 29 March).

SWALEC CUP Quarter-final draw: Ebbw Vale v Treorchy or Bridgend; Cardiff v South Wales Police; Neath v Swansea; Llanelli v Pontypool (Ties to be played Saturday 22 March).