Rugby Union: Cup draw has big guns pointing head to head

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The Independent Online
Michael Lynagh may be able to control a rugby ball better than virtually anyone in the world, but when it comes to picking numbered balls out of a hat he is just as susceptible to the fates as the rest of us. Australia's former captain not only gave his club, Saracens, a Pilkington Cup headache yesterday but inflicted a similar condition on almost every other team with a realistic chance of reaching Twickenham in May.

Lynagh spared only one of the Cup favourites in concocting the most competitive sixth-round draw imaginable - Harlequins, 5-2 front runners for the knockout title, will visit rank outsiders Rotherham on 25 January. Most of the remaining ties will be pure theatre. After pairing Sarries with their north London neighbours Wasps, Lynagh wreaked havoc by sending Leicester to Bath for a repeat of last season's final, Bristol to Gloucester and Sale to Orrell. Not even Northampton will feel confident at home to Derek Eves' awkward squad from League Two, Coventry, in a Midlands derby.

With two all-Second Division ties, a couple of dark horses are certain to make the quarter-finals. Newcastle, a real danger if their demolition of West Hartlepool last Sunday was anything to go by, will expect to see off London Scottish while Wakefield, who gave Bath a torrid time at the last-16 stage last season, should pack too much attacking weaponry for Moseley.

Bath-Leicester is a certain sell-out, but there is a degree of doubt over the date. If the Tigers beat Toulouse in the Heineken European Cup semi-final at Welford Road on Saturday week, the final, scheduled for 25 January, will force a postponement. Bath, already beaten by the Midlanders in the league this season, have lost only one home Cup tie in 12 years - against Leicester in 1991.

There will be every bit as much venom at Kingsholm, especially as Gloucester and Bristol have been thrown together in a life or death battle against relegation. Yesterday's announcement by the Rugby Football Union that four sides will disappear automatically through the trap-door at the end of the season rather than three, as originally agreed, has left the traditional West Country giants vulnerable to the unthinkable.

Predictably, neither club was inclined to send seasonal greetings to the RFU yesterday. Alan Davies, the Bristol coach, described the decision as "barmy" and claimed it would damage the development of rugby in England while his counterpart at Gloucester, Richard Hill, dug deeper into the dictionary and came out with "disgusting". Hill, an England A coach this season, accused the RFU of kowtowing to big-money clubs in the Second Division who have been lobbying hard for two promotion places.

Worryingly from the point of view of club solidarity, the Leicester chief executive Peter Wheeler yesterday came down firmly behind Gloucester and Bristol, arguing that any change to the relegation rules should have been jointly discussed by representatives of both the governing body and the clubs.

At least the Welsh appear to have solved their differences. Referees who staged an unprecedented strike last weekend and effectively wiped out the entire senior league programme yesterday accepted a revised pay package from the Welsh Rugby Union. They will now be paid on a sliding scale backdated to late August, with First Division fixtures commanding a pounds 125 fee.

PILKINGTON CUP Sixth-round draw: Saracens v Wasps; Rotherham v Harlequins;Bath v Leicester; Wakefield v Moseley; Gloucester v Bristol; London Scottish v Newcastle; Northampton v Coventry; Orrell v Sale (Ties to be played on Saturday, 25 January).