Rugby Union: Newcastle face character test

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The Independent Online
To misquote the Beatles, money can't buy you luck. Sir John Hall, the one-man financial machine driving Newcastle's ambitious attempt to hijack the nation's sporting consciousness, has suffered a rough 24 hours on the knock-out front.

After watching his expensively assembled football team get the bum's rush from the FA Cup on Sunday, he then had to endure further pain as the draw for the Pilkington Cup quarter-finals was made yesterday.

Francois Pienaar, the Saracens flanker who captained South Africa to World Cup glory in 1995, paired Newcastle with the winners of the Bath- Leicester tie on Saturday week.

It will be a tough test for Rob Andrew, recruited at considerable cost by Hall 15 months ago with a brief to establish the Second Division side as an elite force in English rugby and whoever emerges victorious from the battle of The Rec will be firm favourites for the trophy.

Andrew will need big performances from the substantial number of full internationals at his disposal; 10 played in the side that saw off London Scottish on Saturday and they will have an 11th after this weekend because the New Zealand-born Ross Nesdale will make his debut for Ireland in Cardiff. Nesdale gets his chance because Allen Clarke, the Northampton hooker, broke a hand in the his club's cup victory over Coventry.

At least no one could accuse Pienaar of feathering the nest of his own team-mates. Saracens will meet the cup specialists Harlequins - the second successive London derby for Tony Diprose's side, who just made it past Wasps on Sunday.

English rugby's political landscape is even more shrouded in fog, however. The power struggle between the Rugby Football Union and the senior clubs, represented by Epruc, was widely expected to run out of steam this month. Fat chance.

Cliff Brittle, the RFU executive chairman, yesterday called an emergency meeting with the clubs to discuss their latest amendments to the peace formula hammered out before Christmas. The clubs, convinced that their most intractable opponent is preparing to renege on the current deal, told Brittle to take a running jump.

"We will not be attending and the message from the Epruc clubs is that there will be nobody there," Mike Smith, the Saracens chief executive, said. "I have faxed Cliff an offensive reply." Happy days.

SWALEC CUP Seventh-round draw: Cardiff v Dinas Powys; Pontypool v Whitland; Llandovery v South Wales Police; Newcastle Emlyn v Ebbw Vale; Swansea v Pontypridd; Carmarthen Quins v Neath; Treorchy v Bridgend; Abertillery v Llanelli.

PILKINGTON CUP Quarter-finals

Newcastle v Bath or Leicester

Wakefield v Gloucester

Northampton v Sale

Harlequins v Saracens

Ties to be played Saturday 22 Feb

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