Rugby Union: Big Two face battle to play on sabbath

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The Independent Online
If Newcastle and Saracens, the two outstanding exponents of nouveau riche rugby, are to stage their own private battle for both cup and league honours this season, they will have to do it the hard way. Chris Hewett considers the ramifications of a tasty Tetley's Bitter Cup quarter-final draw.

Roger Uttley, the England manager, does not look like an innocent at large, but he caused a whole lot of hassle without realising it yesterday by drawing English rugby's new Big Two, Newcastle and Saracens, away to Northampton and Richmond respectively. The pairings guarantee all manner of trouble, strife and controversy - and that is without taking into account any flare-ups that might occur on the pitch.

The organisers will almost certainly want an even split between Saturday and Sunday ties over the weekend of 28 February and 1 March and with both favourites showing a penchant for sabbath rugby, each will be keen to play 24 hours later than the other. However, Northampton are a dyed-in- the-wool Saturday outfit - the Franklins Gardens faithful may turn out in big numbers, but they are creatures of habit - and there were clear indications from Richmond yesterday that they would also prefer to retain the traditional day of rest.

To add to the complications, Richmond are now on course for another round of municipal cut and thrust with their local planning authority, which has repeatedly blocked moves to expand the capacity of the Athletic Ground in recent months. "We're going to have to go back and speak to them again," said Tony Hallett, the new Richmond chief executive.

Hallett, the former Rugby Football Union secretary, is likely to discover that transforming Twickenham into a 78,000-capacity sporting cathedral was a far easier proposition than providing his club ground with enough seats to make it a commercial viability. Despite their improved Premiership form, Richmond struggle to attract more than 3,500 through the turnstiles - crowd levels that just about suit the current Athletic Ground facilities. A big London derby tie with Sarries, however, would attract well over double that figure if there was anywhere for the overflow to park their backsides.

"If you look at the potential over, say four years, I think Richmond could legitimately aim at matching Leicester and pull in 15,000 plus for a big game," Hallett said. "But to do that, we need to expand. We very much want to keep Richmond in Richmond, first and foremost because we have enjoyed a tremendous local response this season. Hopefully, we'll persuade the people that need to be persuaded that we are also worthy of their support."

With Newcastle on the road in the Midlands, their fast- improving neighbours from West Hartlepool will be left to fly the last eight flag in the north-east, against Sale. The other tie throws together the two remaining capital sides, London Irish and Wasps. "We always have trouble with the Irish," muttered Uttley, swapping his new England hat for his old Wasps one.

Meanwhile, Brian Ashton, the Ireland coach, accepted defeat in the race for the services of Dominic Chapman, the Richmond wing. Chapman was simultaneously courted by both Ashton and Clive Woodward, the England coach, with Woodward winning the day. "I'm very disappointed because we put in a lot of work on Dominic," said Ashton, describing England's sudden interest as "an unfortunate coincidence".

A second Richmond player, Craig Gillies, may soon find himself at the centre of a similar tug-of-loyalty. Gillies has both English and Scottish ancestry and, sure enough, both countries have made representative overtures to the gangling 21-year-old line-out specialist.

TETLEY'S BITTER CUP: Quarter-final draw: London Irish v Wasps; West Hartlepool v Sale; Richmond v Saracens; Northampton v Newcastle. (Ties to be played on the weekend of 28 February).