Rugby Union: Frantic scramble for European Cup rewards

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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN CUP rugby means so much to England's leading clubs, not least their hard-pressed treasurers, that it is reasonable to suggest that of all the Premiership teams taking the field this weekend, Leicester are the least paranoid. Although they are working on the assumption that they will need a point from tomorrow's match at Newcastle to secure the championship title for the first time since 1995 - Bath, who could hand the Tigers the whole shooting match on a plate by beating Northampton today, are never to be trusted - their collective nervous system is in far better order than most.

The real neurotics can be found in the capital, where four teams are eyebrow deep in Ecu-mania as they chase a top six qualifying place and a guaranteed pounds 500,000-plus. Two of them, London Irish and Saracens, go toe-to-toe at Sunbury this afternoon in a match of immense significance to the well-being of everyone concerned. "We need three wins from our last four games if we are to make Europe," said Francois Pienaar, the Saracens coach, yesterday.

His opposite number, Dick Best, could be spotted on the same soapbox as he surveyed the mid-table panic. "We have to win our last two matches to be sure," he said. "We're all fighting for our futures and it is on a knife edge.

Having lost four Premiership games and a cup tie on the bounce, Sarries look the most vulnerable of the big-name contestants. Pienaar is likely to miss the rest of the campaign with knee ligament trouble, Alain Penaud and his family are so unsettled in England that they intend to hot-foot it back to France as soon as they can book themselves a flight and Brendan Daniel, their prolific left wing, has rendered himself unavailable for scoring duty by putting his foot through a plate-glass window. Ryan Constable moves to the wide position, leaving Jeremy Thomson to fill the gap in midfield.

For Irish, one of the more sentimental and nostalgia-ridden clubs until "Sulphuric" Best arrived with his calculated barbs and brutal home truths, the fact that today's game is their last at Sunbury means nothing in comparison to the dash for Euro cash. "The ground is too small for big matches and while it will always remain our spiritual home, the occasion will be worth relishing only if it takes us a long way towards confirming a place in the European Cup," he said. "It is going down to the wire, all this. Saracens could run into form at any time."

Newcastle, who also have grand designs on a European campaign next season, are likely to recall two internationals of similar physical proportions, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Peter Walton, for tomorrow's shot at the champions elect. Leicester, meanwhile, recall Derek Jelley to their front row in place of Graham Rowntree and will run late fitness checks on Tim Stimpson, Craig Joiner and Pat Howard, all of whom are confidently expected to participate.

Down in the second division of the Premiership, the chase for the one automatic promotion place continues with Bristol and Rotherham manacled together in a desperate two-horse race. If the nerve-ends are raw amongst the European contenders, they are positively frazzled at the Memorial Ground and Clifton Lane. Bristol hold the advantage, if a points-scored difference of plus four can be so described, but must travel to Waterloo this afternoon. Rotherham, meanwhile, would do their chances a power of good by winning at Worcester.

If, as seems likely, it comes down to the pocket calculator next weekend, Bristol will at least know precisely what they have to do; their final game, also involving Worcester, takes place 24 hours after Rotherham's last hurrah against Moseley. A fair system? Mmmm...