Rugby Union: Barbarians are out to restore their old image

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The Independent Online
THE GHOST of Christmas past was making a long-delayed appearance in Leicester this afternoon in the cosmopolitan shape of 15 Barbarians, some of them instantly recognisable and others rather less likely to have their progress through the East Midlands obstructed by autograph-hunting youngsters. The traditional festive bash may have the word "anachronis" stamped all over it, but given that last season's fixture was shifted unceremoniously to an anonymous date in mid-March, today's proceedings are something of a triumph for Mickey Steele-Bodger and his fellow selectors.

At one time, it was easier to break into the Baa-Baa committee's beloved East India Club without a tie than lay a hand of one of the famous hooped shirts with which they have anointed the finest rugby talents in the world.

Sadly, the most famous invitation side of them all no longer command the same respect; not since 1995 has the annual Christmas match at Welford Road actually been played at Christmas and as a general rule the selectors now have to work overtime simply to raise a team.

To their credit, they will put something very decent before a 12,000- plus crowd this afternoon: three fine Italians - Massimo Cuttitta, Christian Stoica and the national captain, Massimo Giovanelli - are joined by a fistful of Scots, Craig Chalmers and Scott Hastings included, and Ireland's Eric Miller, who earlier this season left Leicester for the familiar comforts of home. In response, the Tigers include Martin Johnson, Austin Healey, Richard Cockerill, Neil Back and, for dessert as it were, a prop partnership of Graham Rowntree and Derek Jelley. Dean Richards, the coach, is said to be demanding a wobble-free scrummage.

"This fixture remains a big thing for me; I would have been 11 or 12 when I watched my first Baa-Baas game at Welford Road and I know how much the people of Leicester love it," said Johnson yesterday. "Certainly, I would resist any move to abandon the fixture. I think we have a duty to put out a strong team and to perform well because a lot of those coming to watch us play themselves and therefore rarely get a chance to take in a Premiership match. Both teams will move the ball and hopefully, everyone will get a buzz out of it."

There was not much in the way of a buzz at Saracens yesterday as the fall-out from last weekend's startling 24-7 home defeat by London Scottish began to kick in.

Kyran Bracken, the cup holders' international scrum-half, will sit out the next three weeks with concussion while Alain Penaud, their French stand-off, is doubtful for Sunday's Premiership match with Bedford because of a "dead" leg.

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