Rugby Union: Llanelli fired by the old romance

Chris Hewett on the final pool matches in rugby union's European Cup
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The Independent Online
Financial uncertainty, two missing New Zealanders and an injury list so long that Stradey Park may soon be awarded National Health Trust status. Just at the moment, the rugby romantics of Llanelli are finding it difficult to escape the mundane practicalities of life.

For 80 minutes this afternoon the old dreams will come alive once again. The Welshmen are at Leicester for a do-or-die game in Pool B of the Heineken European Cup, where a point will give them a precious place in the knock- out phase of a competition that is becoming more compelling by the day. It is a big occasion and in Llanelli, big occasions are what makes life worth living.

Now that their season-long casualty crisis has forced them to field the injured flanker Paul Morris as a desperation measure against Dean Richards' mighty pack today, some 3,000 travelling supporters will be anticipating another memorable display of backs-to-the-wall heroism.

Ah, the great men of yesteryear - Carwyn, Delme, JJ, Grav, Benny. Somehow, the name Rupert Henry St John Barker Moon does not sit easily in the pantheon, but if anyone can generate the right sort of fever amongst the Scarlets in the inhospitable surroundings of Welford Road, it is their much-travelled, much-battered but irrepressible scrum-half.

"We've been building for this one for the last two weeks, ever since it became clear that we would need a result to reach the last eight," said Moon, a good Midlands lad from Birmingham who once captained Richards and sundry other Tigers at divisional level and won England B honours before switching allegiance to play 18 times for Wales.

"We've got terrible injury problems at the moment, but with Ieuan Evans and Wayne Proctor back in the side we're in there with a shout. It's the sort of game that tends to bring out the best in us."

Moon is carefully constructing a new half-back partnership with Frano Botica, the former New Zealand outside-half who arrived at Stradey last month after a successful career in rugby league and a controversially brief sojourn at Orrell.

"He's some player," Moon said. "It's wonderful to see how his influence and experience are beginning to seep through the side, giving us all new confidence and a sense of direction. When you have someone of Frano's quality in a really important position, it works wonders for your self- belief.

"We've had an up and down season and it's only our home form that has held us together. We no longer seem to be able to go 20 minutes down the road without falling apart [but] much of that is down to the fatigue factor caused by an injury list that forces those players still standing to take on too many matches.

"I'm also aware that in the professional era there is less room for the kind of excuse I've just given. We need to start doing it away from Stradey and today is as good a time as any."

Botica's arrival at Llanelli should have been eased by the presence of two formidable countrymen, the prop, Steve McDowell, and the aggressive North Harbour back-row man, Richard Turner but both are still in New Zealand awaiting playing permits.

There is also concern in some Stradey quarters that the club is nowhere near as financially sound as it appeared to be at the start of the season and that, as a result, McDowell and Turner are no longer a cost-effective proposition.

The existing players are on generous salaries, however, and as Moon says, "the pride and passion are still burning bright in the dressing-room." If the starry-eyed visionaries are to survive against the realists of the Leicester pack, they will need all that and more.

In Pool A, Bath are also on the road for an equally important game with Treviso in north-east Italy. Their much-criticised pack restored at least some credibility in last weekend's struggle with Dax but John Hall, the Bath team manager, has gone ahead with plans to bolster his forward strength by signing the Argentinian Federico Mendez.

The 19st hooker has been playing with Natal in South Africa's domestic Currie Cup tournament but he watched Bath inflict a record defeat on Bristol earlier this week and agreed terms after detailed discussions with Hall and representatives of Bath's millionaire backer, Andrew Brownsword.

Hall, who said his new recruit would be available in the near future, is also thought to be interested in two locks, the Natal and Springbok Steve Atherton, and the Bristol and England squad member, Simon Shaw.

The European Cup: how they stand

Pool A

Very tight indeed. The most competitive group of the four will go down to the wire, with points difference the crucial factor. Bath, the English champions, can still win the pool and so guarantee themselves a home quarter-final, but their only priority in Italy this afternoon will be to beat an awkward Treviso side who still have a mathematical chance, albeit a slim one, of staying in the tournament. Dax have home advantage against Pontypridd and a decisive victory will leave the Welshmen reaching for their pocket calculators.

P W D L F A Pts

Pontypridd 3 3 0 0 79 38 6

Dax 3 2 0 1 119 51 4

Bath 3 2 0 1 86 61 4

Treviso 3 1 0 2 79 85 2

Edinburgh 4 0 0 4 71 199 0

Previous results: Bath 55 Edinburgh 26; Pontypridd 28 Treviso 22; Edinburgh 10 Pontypridd 32; Treviso 14 Dax 34; Pontypridd 19 Bath 6; Dax 69 Edinburgh 12; Bath 25 Dax 16; Edinburgh 23 Treviso 43.

Today: Dax v Pontypridd, Treviso v Bath.

Pool B

Leicester's outstanding victory over the hard men of Pau in France last weekend guaranteed them a place in the last eight and Llanelli, who need a point at Welford Road to book their own place in the knock-out phase, will be hoping the Tigers relax a touch too much this afternoon. Defeat for the Welsh side will leave them waiting anxiously for news from Dublin where Pau, with a superior points difference, must beat Leinster to keep alive their own qualification hopes.

P W D L F A Pts

Leicester 3 3 0 0 89 27 6

Llanelli 3 2 0 1 81 56 4

Pau 3 1 0 2 114 78 2

Leinster 3 1 0 2 61 86 2

S Borders 4 1 0 3 80 178 2

Previous results: Llanelli 34 Leinster 17; Pau 85 Scottish Borders 28; Scottish Borders 24 Llanelli 16; Leinster 10 Leicester 27; Llanelli 31 Pau 15; Leicester 43 Scottish Borders 3; Pau 14 Leicester 19; Scottish Borders 25 Leinster 34.

Today: Leicester v Llanelli, Leinster v Pau.

Pool C

The clearest-cut of the groups. Brive are already in the last eight, but need to beat a dangerous Ulster side in Belfast to secure a home tie - a task not eased by the fact that Denis McBride and company still have a long shot at qualification themselves. Sadly for them, they need Harlequins to slip up at home against Caledonia, who look a safe bet for a whitewash despite their ability to score handsomely against quality opposition. Quins need Brive to lose today if they are to avoid a likely last eight trip to Leicester.

P W D L F A Pts

Brive 3 3 0 0 89 59 6

Harlequins 3 2 0 1 75 60 4

Neath 4 2 0 2 83 109 4

Ulster 3 1 0 2 69 70 2

Caledonia 3 0 0 3 82 100 0

Previous results: Brive 34 Neath 19; Caledonia 34 Ulster 41; Neath 27 Caledonia 18; Ulster 15 Harlequins 21; Harlequins 44 Neath 22; Caledonia 30 Brive 32; Neath 15 Ulster 13; Brive 23 Harlequins 10.

Today: Harlequins v Caledonia, Ulster v Brive.

Pool D

It's winner-take-all at Les Sept-Deniers where Toulouse, still trying to put their world back on its axis after that 70-point hiding at Wasps last week, take on the fire and fury of Munster. An Irish victory in France would be an outstanding achievement but is not a realistic expectation. However, they need only a point to qualify and the reigning European champions have been struggling all season. Sadly for Wasps today's match in Milan is stone cold dead.

P W D L F A Pts

Cardiff 4 3 0 1 135 97 6

Munster 3 2 0 1 90 75 4

Toulouse 3 2 0 1 97 123 4

Wasps 3 1 0 2 123 92 2

Milan 3 0 0 3 50 108 0

Previous results: Munster 23 Milan 5; Wasps 24 Cardiff 26; Cardiff 48 Munster 18; Milan 26 Toulouse 44; Munster 49 Wasps 22; Toulouse 36 Cardiff 20; Wasps 77 Toulouse 17; Cardiff 41 Milan 19.

Today: Toulouse v Munster, Milan v Wasps.