Newcastle ready to repay outlay

Chris Hewett on likely upsets in rugby union's Pilkington Cup
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The Independent Online
The cynics who have spent all season waiting for Sir John Hall's bank account to fall victim to spontaneous combustion will be on tenterhooks today when Newcastle, almost as awash with full internationals as they are with money, take on Leicester in what promises to be a compelling Pilkington Cup quarter-final tie at Kingston Park.

A comfortable victory for the visitors would reinforce a view popularly held in traditionalist circles that Sir John has bought nothing more than an expensive white elephant, but those with an anti-Hall axe to grind may have to wait for vindication. Newcastle are hardly confident of victory but they are more than hopeful of justifying at least some of their owner's largess.

Newcastle can boast two-thirds of the 18 capped players on view - a remarkable state of affairs given that a full Courage League division still lies between the two clubs. Pat Lam, the shudderingly hard Western Samoan captain, makes his cup debut at loose forward and the Geordies are further encouraged by the fact that Tim Stimpson, the England full-back, and Ross Nesdale, the New Zealand-born Irish hooker, have recovered from knee injuries and will play.

By way of contrast, Leicester have all manner of problems, not so much a selection headache as a full-blown migraine. Eric Miller, unceremoniously "dealt with" by the England pack during last weekend's international in Dublin, was always going to miss the game through concussion, but with Dean Richards also ruled out by knee trouble, the Tigers' back-row looks unusually fragile. Will Johnson, brother of the Leicester and England lock Martin, fills in at No 8.

Stuart Potter is also out, having failed to recover from whiplash injuries suffered in a road accident last week. Craig Joiner, the former Scotland wing who has been struggling with groin trouble since September, fills the gap in midfield and Bob Dwyer, the coach, readily admitted yesterday that his side would need to be "switched on" to survive.

The same goes for Northampton, whose home advantage over Sale today will count for nothing unless Ian McGeechan succeeds in coaxing the best from the disparate talents at his disposal in the back division. He has Matt Dawson back from injury at scrum-half, Paul Grayson in his Test position of stand-off, Gregor Townsend alongside Jonathan Bell in the centre and Nick Beal at full-back. All five are in the Lions preliminary squad.

Sale are also at full strength, although their flanker Dylan O'Grady will need a late fitness test on his troublesome groin. John Mitchell's hard-headedness in the back row should ensure they make a better fist of things than on their previous trip to Franklins Gardens in October, the last time the Cheshire club lost a match.

In today's other tie, Gloucester restore Phil Greening to their front row for the game at Wakefield, the rank outsiders. Tomorrow, Harlequins and Saracens complete the weekend's cup business with a London derby at The Stoop.