Rugby Union: Bath in the picture but short on support: Live television may be a switch-off for some but returned tickets on a Pilkington Cup semi-final day tells a different tale

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IT SAYS something for the occasion the Pilkington Cup final has become - the next-best thing to an international - that Twickenham is already, with the finalists

unknown, a 68,000 sell-out for the game on 7 May.

It also says something for the power of live television that Bath, cup-winners seven times since 1984, should have returned part of their allocation for this afternoon's semi-final at Harlequins, where the capacity is a mere 59,500 fewer than at HQ, just the other side of the Chertsey Road.

This is not the first televised semi-final, but then last season's Midlands affair between Leicester and Northampton was effectively sold out as soon as the draw had been made. The point is that, with their new TV contract involving Sky as well as the gratefully

relieved BBC, live TV is what the Rugby Football Union has now signed up to, whether the clubs like it or not.

The evidence is that they do not. Orrell had no trouble filling Edge Hall Road for today's other semi- final, though as it is Leicester who are the visitors and the capacity has been fixed at an inadequate 5,000 that is scarcely surprising. But how Bristol, who host London Irish in a rearranged fixture vital to the Exiles' First Division survival, feel is another matter.

'On the one hand, live television promotes the game and possibly converts a few people to interest in rugby; on the other, there are concerns about the effect on gates,' Dudley Wood, the secretary of the RFU, said.

Whatever the arguments, we can take it that the sponsors are highly delighted and would now like to have their way by persuading the RFU to get the semi-finals played at neutral venues or even at Twickenham itself.

As it happens, during all their years of cup success Bath have never had a home draw at this stage and have made it to the final every time. If they were at all sentimental, they would want to send Jack Rowell on his way with the Double, though at the Rec they regard their coach's becoming England manager as a sideways move so the feeling is as much of commiseration as commendation.

Rowell will announce his first England selection - the tour party to visit South Africa next month - tomorrow and it is reasonable to anticipate at least 12 of those playing at The Stoop today to be among the 30, plus half a dozen of those

appearing in the other semi-final in Lancashire.

Orrell are trying to be canny by leaving their final choice until they had seen this morning's weather but it will take a staggering performance to halt the cup holders, who have beaten Orrell twice in the league this season and would beat a 27-year-old club record by achieving an 18th straight win today.

'We are the better side and Orrell have no department of their game which is superior to ours,' Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, said.

There is one imponderable, however: the absence of the England flanker Neil Back with a broken thumb, which may have even more impact when Leicester go to Bath for the prospective league decider next Saturday.

By then both expect to have a second rendezvous fixed up, even if Bath give the impression that they are almost at the end of their tether. 'We are the best club in the world and we have to prove that to ourselves and others by continual winning,' John Hall, their captain, said. 'But it doesn't get any easier. This season has been the most arduous ever.'

Incipient exhaustion implies a certain vulnerability, but Harlequins are not fooled. 'Bath,' as Quins' manager, Jamie Salmon,

acknowledged, 'are special.' He is tired of hearing it but so, when it comes to the cup, are the league's great under-achievers.

THE STOOP TEAMS

Harlequins: D Pears; J Keyter, W Carling, G Thompson, D O'Leary; P Challinor, C Luxton; J Leonard, B Moore, A Mullins (capt), T Coker, A Snow, M Russell, C Sheasby, M Pepper.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Lumsden; S Barnes, R Hill; C Clark, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).

EDGE HALL ROAD TEAMS

Orrell (probable): S Taberner (capt); J Naylor, S Langford, I Wynn, P Hamer; G Ainscough, D Morris; M Hynes, G French, D Southern, C Cusani, C Cooper, D Cleary, S Bibby, P Manley.

Leicester: W Kilford; S Hackney, S Potter, L Boyle, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), W Drake-Lee.

Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).

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