Rugby Union: Olver the Saint faces up to life's cruel realities: Captain's career in jeopardy as the Pilkington Cup offers his struggling side a last hope in the midst of a desperate season

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JOHN OLVER, England's hooker-in-waiting since 1988, will consult a specialist next week about his persistent tendinitis and if the news is bad enough it could even be the end of the Northampton captain's career.

This is the story of the Saints' season, really. Instead of challenging for the league title, they are imperilled by relegation, the Pilkington Cup - in which they play Gloucester this afternoon - their remaining hope of something positive emerging from a desperate season.

Injuries to such key players as Martin Bayfield, and now this to Olver, are an obvious excuse. Tim Rodber, the vice-captain, is also absent, so John Steele leads the team at Kingsholm. At least Matthew Dawson, an England scrum-half contender, has been passed fit.

Wherever they stand in the First Division, Saints are one of all too few sides with talent enough to win the cup. Barrie Corless, who as coaching director oversaw their rise into this elite, said yesterday: 'Planning with (the coach) Glenn Ross the next two or three years, this was the year we felt the club was going to achieve something in league or cup.'

Whatever happens, Corless will not share in it. On the contrary: he is now actively plotting the downfall of Northampton after moving on last summer to become Gloucester's director of rugby. Though he and Olver agree the Saints are too good to go down, Olver admits his team deserve their lowly place in the league: eighth of 10, two points ahead of London Irish, who have two games in hand. 'It's been excruciatingly disappointing,' he said. 'But there's so much potential at the club that one day we are going to click and give someone a real hiding.'

When it happens, he will not necessarily be there. Already Northampton have signed up the Leicester reserve hooker, Chris Johnson, for next season, and at 31 Olver has lost his place on the England bench this season to Graham Dawe, who is three years older.

'The last time I really played was in Canada with England last summer,' Olver said. 'I've been struggling all season and it's finally caught up with me. I know how I can play and how I am playing - and the two don't coincide.'

Gloucester-Northampton is one of four all-First Division ties. At least three from outside the top flight will be in Monday's quarter- final draw. London Irish's chance away to the holders, Leicester, is even more remote now that injuries have removed Jim Staples and Paul Collins. Bristol, still without Kyran Bracken, fancy their chance at Bath, where they field the side who lost

9-0 to the champions in the league a fortnight ago.

It is cup day, too, in Wales, the Swalec having reached the last 32. This is the point at which a deliberately weakened Cardiff side went out to St Peter's last season. Alas for Oakdale, who follow the giant-killers' footsteps to the Arms Park today, the Cardiff selectors have not repeated the mistake.

There is no such thing as a national cup in Scotland, an anomalous state of affairs for which divisions between those who dwell on opposite sides of Soutray Hill (to the north Edinburgh, to the south the Borders) are largely responsible. Soutray is on the Jedburgh road, which will be heavily populated today with folk making for Jed-Forest v Gala to see if Gary Armstrong is fit to resume as Scotland's scrum-half.