Newcastle not complaining as freeze hits Cup

Steve Bale previews the Pilkington Cup ties that have beaten the weather
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The Independent Online
You need only look at the fixture chaos caused this season by a couple of frozen weekends to appreciate how very fortunate English rugby has been during the previously clement years that have blessed the Courage Clubs' Championship since its inauguration in 1987.

Having been told often enough by the Rugby Football Union that its ever- changing "structured season" cannot accommodate any more matches, we now find the final three months of 1995/96 plunged into congestion, with yesterday's postponement of half of today's Pilkington Cup last-16 ties compounding the situation created over the New Year.

Still, at least one club were not complaining. Once Dick Best, Harlequins' director of rugby, had told the match referee, Jim Coulson, that he would prefer not to travel to the north-east last night in order to make another, probably futile, inspection of the Kingston Park pitch at 11.15 this morning, Newcastle were perfectly happy.

A decision on a new date for this match will have to go to the RFU's competitions sub-committee, the likely alternatives being 10 or 24 February. If it is the former, three of Rob Andrew's signings - Dean Ryan, Nick Popplewell and Graham Childs - will have completed their 120-day registration.

The latter, which is the date the quarter-finals are due to be played, would be even better for Newcastle, because by then Tony Underwood, Gary Armstrong and Doddie Weir would also be eligible, adding a total of five full internationals and one A cap to the pool from whom Andrew can choose. The former England outside-half himself became available today.

"At the moment it's a First v Second Division clash and on the 10th they are starting to assemble a fairly potent outfit," Best said yesterday. "Without doubt it will make it a totally different tie. We just want the earliest possible date." Newcastle may beg to differ.

Also postponed yesterday were three other Cup ties on the eastern side of the Pennines, West Hartlepool v Coventry, Nottingham v Gloucester and Bedford v Bristol. West and Coventry are considering rearranging for next Saturday, when England play Wales at Twickenham, or possibly Sunday.

Leeds said last night that their game against London Irish would definitely take place. Wakefield have covers at College Grove which gives their game against Bath, the holders, a chance of proceeding, and Leicester's covers at Welford Road have famously allowed them to play matches when others have been called off.

Sky's cameras, which had been intended for Newcastle, were yesterday diverted to Leicester where Saracens will try to show their remarkable defeat of the Tigers at Southgate in November was no fluke and that their subsequent descent of the First Division - notwithstanding the investment of pounds 2.5m by Nigel Wray, who now owns the rights to the Noddy books as well as the Wallaby stand-off Michael "Noddy" Lynagh - has been too bad to be true.

It is asking a lot. Leicester handsomely compensated for their Saracens misadventure by winning their League game at Bath three weeks ago and, amid the many questions about how England and English rugby should be playing, they have a simple strategy which is habitually too powerful for anything the domestic game can throw at it.

On the other side of the Pennines there are covers on the ground too at Winnington Park, who are desperate for their tie against Wasps - Fifth Division v First - to go ahead after the erection of temporary stands in the hope of a crowd at least 10 times the usual 250. In Cheshire, they feel themselves to be more sheltered from Siberia's icy blast.