Rugby Union: Leicester ready to spoil Rowell's grand day out

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The Independent Online
IT IS one of this rugby life's little ironies that Geoff Cooke's persistent warning of the growing incompatibility of club and international demands should be so obviously reflected on the biggest day club rugby has ever known.

Leicester, the holders, play Bath, the league champions, for the Pilkington Cup at Twickenham this afternoon before 68,000 people, which exceeds the previous world record for a club fixture of 66,000 - set at the 1991 Japanese final - and would have been 150,000 had there been a stadium capable of accommodating so many.

Incredible. When the new West Stand is built in two years' time, the Rugby Football Union already knows the record will be extended to 75,000.

Today's prospect is quite thrilling, a perfect match between the best two teams in England.

Yet immediately it is over, the thoughts of 14 of the participants (plus Steve Ojomoh on the Bath bench) will turn to the tour of South Africa which

begins as soon as Wednesday. So when Jack Rowell, Cooke's successor as England manager,

exhorts his Bath team to bust a gut he has to hope this is not literally the case or else they will be out of the tour.

There was a time when Welsh players excused themselves from cup finals if a Lions tour was about to follow but the theory these days is that it is better to be playing, and doubtless a good, hard game is what the tourists require before they collide with all those gigantic South African forwards.

They can but hope so, anyway. This is the last match of Rowell's 18 illustrious years as Bath coach and, though his sides have scarcely ever lacked motivation in a decade of

incessant trophy-winning, the notion of 'doing it for Jack' has a special appeal. Bath may be known for ruthlessness but they also have a wide streak of sentimentality.

This is not the way, Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching

director, would put it. 'There is a steely element running through them and they have this habit of winning,' he said yesterday as both camps ritually flaunted their mutual

admiration. Russ would like to think his Tigers are going the same way but, funnily enough, Leicester's cup success of last season and the attendant froth about their becoming the team of the Nineties have had the effect of making Bath still more formidable.

'They don't come any bigger,' Russ said. 'What I'm concerned about is getting enough ball. We were all right for possession when we became the only side this season to beat Bath, but we struggled in the return match a fortnight ago. I'm looking for an improved performance from our front five in the hope that what I believe to be our superior threequarters will be able to profit.'

Bath have a habit of ramming this sort of talk down the speaker's throat. And true though it is that the Underwood brothers are somewhat swifter than the veteran Tony Swift, it is equally true that Swift, wantonly ignored by England in his halcyon years, is as great a snapper-up of trifles as exists in English rugby.

'We respect Leicester more than any other club,' Rowell said yesterday as he prepared to cut the umbilical cord that has bound him to Bath since 1976. 'That's supposed to be a painless procedure,' he said, in pursuit of the post-natal metaphor, 'but it will be painful for me.'

The pain of so much hard

labour would be relieved by Bath's eighth cup in 11 seasons and, as the outcome is too close to call, the only logical expectation is that Bath and Rowell will pull through once again. You have only to look at their last-minute semi-final win over Harlequins, their last- minute final win over Quins in 1992 and even their last-minute final win over Leicester in 1989 to appreciate that Bath - team of the Nineties as well as Eighties - are never more

secure than in a crisis.

The match will be preceded by the final of the Pilkington Shield for junior clubs between Malvern, from Worcestershire, and Old Hamptonians, from Middlesex. Dudley Wood, the RFU's secretary, anticipates an intermediate competition eventually making finals day a triple-header.