Rugby Union: English clubs optimistic of RFU hearing

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The chances of seasonal goodwill abounding between Twickenham and England's leading clubs looks a little less remote. The English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are hoping to be allowed to present their proposals to the full committee of the Rugby Football Union on Friday.

One source close to the protracted negotiations said yesterday that both sides were "very close to agreement", but that is one of a number of cliches coined during the dispute and in reality means very little.

As it is, there are rumours that elements within the RFU are trying to prevent the two sides meeting on Friday. But Epruc are optimistic of a hearing and will be having a preliminary chat with the RFU tomorrow to outline their policies before Friday's get-together.

Plans to hold a meeting of leading clubs - organised independently of Epruc - have been abandoned. Prime movers were clubs from the North, who are unhappy with Epruc's stand against the RFU. Precisely what the meeting would have concerned itself with is unclear.

There have, however, been mutterings from the North about calling an SGM to sort out the mess, although if the two sides are as close as it is claimed, a third SGM would likely as not divide rather than unite the game.

Thankfully, it was business as usual on the field. Jack Rowell announced a 24-man squad to prepare for the match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday. Rowell, expected to name an unchanged team today, has added Ben Clarke, Victor Ubogu and Matt Dawson to the 21 brought together for the Italy match.

Clarke missed that game because of a dead leg, but now that he has recovered, the Richmond No 8 is expected to be on the bench for the New Zealand match. Ubogu has been called up as cover for the pack leader Jason Leonard, who injured an elbow against the Italians. Dawson is covering for the scrum- half Andy Gomarsall, who limped off towards the end of England's efficient Italian job.

The Pilkington Cup draw favoured leading clubs with the holders, Bath, the beaten finalists, Leicester, and the Courage League leaders, Harlequins, getting home ties for the fifth round on 21 December. Bath, who have won the competition 10 times, entertain London Irish in the only all-First Division match, while Quins have a more straightforward tie against Cheltenham, of League Four South. Whether Leicester play Lydney or Newbury - their postponed fourth-round tie is expected to take place on 8 December - they should have few problems.

It does not look such a formality for three other First Division sides. Sale have been drawn at home to Richmond, who lead the Second Division. "It gives us a good chance to see where we are in comparison with the top clubs," John Kingston, their director of rugby, said yesterday. "A lot has been written about the standard of rugby in the Second Division, this tie should give everyone an interesting insight into that."

The First Division strugglers West Hartlepool have an equally awkward visit to Richmond's rivals Newcastle. Form favours Rob Andrew's Second Division side. Bottom-placed Orrell take on the Second Division high-flyers Bedford. Spare a thought for Wigton of North One, who have to travel from Cumbria to Birmingham where they take on Second Division Moseley. Fellow North One club Widnes have to beat Reading, of the Third, in a rearranged fourth-round tie in order to gain a home game against Saracens.