Rugby Union: Harris and Leicester eager to settle their differences: Heavyweight contenders look to land a telling blow but the championship is likely to come down to a points decision

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The Independent Online
SMALL wonder the clubs are getting uppity about the Rugby Football Union's new television deal when the season is reaching such a riveting conclusion. Last week glorious cup rugby; this week the Courage Championship First Division, in which Leicester travel to Bath for the climactic match.

This is the first of two meetings and the simple truth that both Bath, the champions, and Leicester, the cup holders, must expunge next month's Pilkington final from their minds illustrates the overwhelming importance of today's encounter. It is not live on television but as of next season it might be, and the clubs - who had a meeting with the RFU this week - are not happy.

Whatever happens at the Rec, its effect on the final is not predictable. The contention, articulated yesterday by Jez Harris, the Tigers' prolific outside-half, that the league winners will have a massive psychological advantage in the cup is highly dubious.

Three seasons ago Leicester knocked Bath out of the cup at the Rec, and only one week before that Bath won in the league at Leicester - a triumph that at the time seemed to give them that self-same massive psychological advantage.

Today Bath can get away with losing, Leicester cannot, which might just make Bath the more relaxed of two tension-filled teams. As things stand, Bath lead Leicester by two points with three games each to play, and their points-difference advantage stands at a modest 16. Next Bath have Harlequins at home, followed finally by London Irish away; Leicester are home to the Irish and then travel to Bristol.

'If we manage to overcome Bath we will automatically start to cut into their points-difference advantage,' Harris said. 'We would then have the last two games to try to run up big scores and win the title on points difference.' The Exiles may be relegated by then but the Harris thesis does also depend on Bristolian compliance and, however much Bristol may hate Bath, that is an erroneous presupposition.

Bath's only league conquerors, as it happens, were Leicester, though that three-point victory in November can scarcely be said to give the Tigers anything psychological now, apart from the not inconsiderable knowledge that they can do it. Today they will miss Neil Back, again replaced by Bill Drake-Lee. Bath address the line-out problems of the Harlequins semi-final by recalling Andy Reed.

It is down to Harris that Leicester have taken a chunk out of Bath's points superiority. Harris did not become the Tigers' main place- kicker until December yet by last week he had passed 300 points for the season. Not only that, he has been the tactical fulcrum in Leicester's 18-match winning run.

This is an extraordinary transformation in a player whom Leicester selectors have spent most of the past decade and more trying to keep out of their team. 'When you reach 29 as a backroom boy and then play in a whole succession of important games everything is special,' he said.

Thank goodness the wide-eyed pleasure of nice guys such as Harris persists in an increasingly cynical rugby world. It is hard to imagine him, or Leicester for that matter, telling the world to go away as Harlequins frostily did after their epic cup defeat by Bath.

The same could be said of Brian Ashton, installed yesterday as Jack Rowell's coaching successor at Bath after four years as the new England manager's assistant. Here is another of the pleasant people of rugby, an England coach of the mid-Eighties and like Rowell a northerner who went West, in this case to teach at King's School, Bruton, in Somerset.

In Wales, Pontypridd's relentless pursuit of Swansea in the Heineken League will be over if the All Whites prevail in their meeting at St Helen's. And even if Swansea lose, they will still have a one-point lead coupled with an advantage in tries, the determining factor in this championship in the event of a tie.

In which case Pontypridd would gladly get on with next Saturday's cup business, a semi-final at Newport against fourth-placed Cardiff which will be televised live. Which brings us back to the great god of the gogglebox. The Welsh Rugby Union announced yesterday that BBC Wales had been awarded the contract for league, cup and tour matches (beginning with the South Africans in the autumn) in the Principality.

The figure is believed to be an annual pounds 1m for three years which, with the Welsh share of the home unions' contract, makes a grand total of around pounds 3.2m. Nice money if you can get it, and as the leading players on both sides of Offa's Dyke would doubtless agree, in the amateur game money talks. The bigger the money, the louder the noise.

----------------------------------------------------------------- HOW THEY STAND ----------------------------------------------------------------- COURAGE CLUBS' CHAMPIONSHIP ----------------------------------------------------------------- First Division Top Two P W D L F A PD Pts Bath 15 14 0 1 353 131 222 28 Leicester 15 13 0 2 359 153 206 26 ----------------------------------------------------------------- HEINEKEN WELSH LEAGUE ----------------------------------------------------------------- First Division Top Three P W D L F A PD Pts Swansea 19 17 0 2 477 236 60 34 Neath 19 15 1 3 495 255 61 31 Pontypridd 19 15 1 3 527 270 54 31 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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