Rugby Union: No loss of pressure from the brewery tap: The leagues build to a climax with the English sponsor prepared to stand by the courage of its convictions

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The Independent Online
IT IS crunch time in the Courage Clubs' Championship - and for it, since the protracted negotiations which have extended all season long about the competition's next three-year sponsorship deal are, in the Rugby Football Union's words, 'nearing completion'.

The RFU intends revealing all on Tuesday at the East India Club in London - a fashionable venue for rugby media events these days, though I venture this will be more prosaic than the British Isles tour party announcement last Monday.

In 1990 Courage paid pounds 2.1m; in '93 it is fair to assume the figure will not have reached the pounds 4m that has been bandied about even if Heineken's pounds 2.1m backing (plus pounds 1m in marketing support) of the Welsh league has raised the stakes for everyone. There are 1,190 clubs in the Courage Championship, 48 in the Heineken.

Other brewers have been among the interested parties this time, though as Mike Reynolds, public affairs director of Courage, said at the England-Scotland post-match dinner that he did not anticipate this being his final appearance at such a function his company does not appear to have reached its sticking-point.

Its league is a user-friendly, highly marketable product which has generated improved playing standards and heightened public awareness beyond anything imagined at its launch in 1987. This season makes the point: most issues, with interest and agony prolonged by the need to truncate divisions for next season's home-and-away fixture list, will not be decided until the very end on 24 April.

At the top, neither Bath nor Wasps can tolerate another defeat if they would be champions. Without Jon Webb (working) and Jeremy Guscott (Hong Kong Sevens), Bath, leaders on points-difference after beating Wasps a fortnight ago, may find it uncomfortable at lowly West Hartlepool, though Wasps did win there in cup as well as league this season.

This and Wasps' home game against Northampton are of particular interest to the Lions. Webb's absence makes Stuart Barnes Bath's first-up kicker for the first time this season, a timely move since Barnes is expected to work on this before and after the tourists depart for New Zealand.

Northampton could be excused for surprise as well as pleasure at having Ian Hunter playing for them for only the sixth time this season. They pick their full-back in his England - and now Lions - position on the wing.

All four having reached the semi-finals, Wasps-Northampton and Leicester-Harlequins are potential cup final rehearsals, even if Quins' priority is the two points that would take them beyond fear of the drop. Likewise the winner of Gloucester-Orrell.

London Scottish's dwindling hope of First Division survival is hampered by Scotland's extracting Iain Morrison and Mark Appleson for Hong Kong rather than leaving them behind to face London Irish at Richmond. Murrayfield may be about to host the World Sevens but the Scottish team - the real, 15-a-side one, that is - would have been better served by trying to preserve their Exiles at the highest possible level.

In Wales Llanelli are taking a chance by proceeding with their First Division fixture at Maesteg when four Scarlets are playing for Wales in Hong Kong. But as Maesteg are bottom, maybe the risk is not great. The Welsh Rugby Union would have let them postpone if they had wished.

Llanelli will go top of the Heineken League if - more likely when - their gamble pays off as Swansea, who are a point ahead, have exercised their own right to defer Newport's visit to St Helen's. Cardiff, who fell from first to third by losing at Neath a fortnight ago, accept that their title prospect will have disappeared if they cannot beat Pontypool at the Arms Park.

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