Rugby Union: Richmond chase European jackpot

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The Independent Online
AS RECENTLY as three and a half weeks ago, a Wednesday night mid- table match between Newcastle and Richmond at wet and windy Kingston Park would have generated about as much excitement as a William Hague rally in the Rhondda.

That was then. The European Cup accord hammered out in Paris late last month guarantees that tonight's match will send pulses racing, pacemakers ticking out of control and Premiership passions soaring to previously unexpected heights. The Tigers of Leicester may already have one paw on the trophy, but the fun and games will go down to the wire.

Both Newcastle, eighth in the table, and Richmond, one place further back, are ready to fight tooth and nail for a top six finish and a seat on the European gravy train. John Kingston, the Londoners' coach, has taken to playing down that ambition in public - "I don't expect us to make Europe, so we are just going to relax and enjoy ourselves," he said yesterday - but no one believes a word of it; more than any top-flight club in English rugby, Richmond could use the pounds 500,000 or so expected to bolster the bank accounts of those who qualify for next season's elite 24-team competition.

With Leicester and Northampton certain to make the cut, seven sides - London Irish, Bath, Wasps, Saracens, Harlequins and tonight's combatants - are effectively chasing four places; remarkably tonight's little tete- a-tete in the North-east is only the first of 10 matches between the direct contenders scheduled for the remaining 26 days of the campaign. "It's certainly too early to call the European outcome; there are so many key games between the main players still to come," pointed out Rob Andrew, Newcastle's chief executive and incapacitated play-making talisman.

All the same, the positions of Newcastle and Richmond on the outer fringes of the contest deny them the luxury of a single failure. The Falcons, unbeaten in league rugby at their Geordie homestead since January 1996, go into tonight's game without Andrew, who dislocated a shoulder in the dying seconds of Sunday's ferocious set-to with Wasps, and may well have to do without three other international backs. Jonny Wilkinson (twisted ankle), Va'aiga Tuigamala (strained knee) and Tony Underwood ("dead" leg) are all doubtful with Premiership novices David Walder, Jamie Noone and Tim May standing by.

Harlequins, also in the north-east tonight for a "must-win" game at West Hartlepool, are so fearful of committing a costly faux pas against the Premiership's bottom club that they have recalled Jason Leonard, Keith Wood, Zinzan Brooke and Chris Sheasby, a forward quartet boasting nearly 250 Test caps. "We have 23 points and there are 12 more available to us," said John Gallagher, the Quins manager. "Of those 12, I think we'll need nine; it seems 32 points might be enough to do the job."

If Europe's sudden reappearance on the agenda is giving players and coaches some late-season palpitations, they are nowhere near as stressed out as the fixture planners. The theory that at least two Premiership One clubs would fold before next September, thereby reducing the size of the top echelon from 14 to a more manageable 12, appears to be fading; Richmond, currently in administration, remain confident of a successful relaunch, while Bedford are close to finalising a new investment package that would secure their immediate future.

Frank Warren, the boxing promoter who bought into Bedford two years ago, is expected to sell his interest to joint backers by the end of the week.

If next season's Premiership stays at 14, the most successful clubs could play as many as 31 fixtures between the World Cup final on 6 November and the end of a season already expanded to accommodate the move to a Six Nations international format. The planners still say the campaign will end in May, but they refuse to say which May.