Rugby Union: Bullish Irish look to Bachop for a lift

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The Independent Online
THE GAP between boardroom rugby, where the only conversions that really matter are those involving different currencies, and real rugby is widening by the week. Take London Irish, for example. To the Armani-suited combatants in the political scrum, the Exiles are strictly second division: expendable small-timers with little financial clout and even less of a future. To the cauliflowered warriors out there on the pitch, though, they are as dangerous as dynamite and twice as combustive.

This afternoon, Irish may well bridge the chasm by forcing even the most ruthless of rugby's bottom-line accountants to sit up and take notice.

Victory at The Stoop would not only give Dick Best and Andy Keast, those renowned and respected former Harlequins, another gloriously vengeful night on the black stuff, but take the club into uncharted territory: the top three of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Only a fool would bet heavily against them paying their first visit to such high altitude. Not only does Best, frozen out of his top-dog job at Harlequins two years ago, consider it reasonable to omit such quality merchandise as Jarod Cunningham, Peter Rogers, Kieron Dawson and Isaac Fea'unati from his starting line-up, but he confidently expects further miracles from his very own magician, Steve Bachop. The former All Black stand-off has been here for rather less than three months, yet he already has Player of the Season stamped on his forehead.

Bachop's half-back partnership with Kevin Putt was clearly a match made in heaven and with Brendan Venter, that ruffian of a Springbok centre, enjoying a real tear-up outside his fellow imports, the Irish midfield is bang on the money. Especially as Keast, who Best lauds as one of the "very best backs coaches in world rugby" now has his wide runners attacking the acres of space so inspirationally opened up by the little man at No 10.

"At the turn of the year, I thought we had lost too many early-season matches to have a chance of winning the league," said Best yesterday.

"Now I think it will be very tight come shoot-out time and, yes, we could be in there. Some of the obvious title contenders are quite fearful of our all-round game; we have an improving defence and some very productive midfield attackers in Bacho, Putt and Venter. We have fine goal-kickers, too."

Ryan Strudwick, another of Best's favourite South Africans, moves from the second row to open-side flanker - a scarcely credible change of role that establishes him as the most versatile forward in the Premiership - and in an effort to neutralise his size and strength, Quins replace Rory Jenkins with the 6ft 2in Australian, Adam Leach. While form suggests an Irish victory, the over-enthusiastic visiting forwards will have to reduce their penalty count by a drastic degree if they are to complete the job. John Schuster, the most dependable marksman in the championship, has an 82 per cent success rate.

Leicester, the leaders, will expect to see off the away-day failures from Gloucester but Will Greenwood's continued absence from the Tigers' midfield must be of serious concern to Clive Woodward, the England coach. Greenwood barely played at all before the World Cup qualifiers in November and thanks to a groin injury, he has not appeared since. Pat Howard and Stuart Potter pair up in the centre.

Northampton should stay in touch by subduing West Hartlepool at Franklin's Gardens; Federico Mendez, their outstanding forward, takes a breather, but Tim Rodber is back to captain a Saints side encouraged by last week's important win at The Stoop. Steve Walter, the England Under-21 hooker, makes his Premiership debut in the front row.

Rob Wainwright, the former Scotland captain, has announced his retirement from international rugby. Wainwright, who led his country 16 times, said: "I have not had a chance to show myself to the selectors. I was beginning to get the drift they were looking elsewhere."

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