Rugby Union: Spectre of Bath hangs over cup campaigners

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The Independent Online
IT IS cup day in England and Wales but you could make a good case that the match of the day is that modern rugby oddity, a friendly. The two fallen giants, Cardiff and Bath, meet at the Arms Park where there will probably be a better crowd than at any of the Pilkington quarter-finals or Swalec sixth-round ties.

'Pretty awful quarter-final draw, isn't it?' Stuart Barnes, the reinstated England outside-half, suggested. But then as he plays for Bath, the cup-holders, and Bath were knocked out of the Pilkington Cup at Waterloo, he would say that wouldn't he? In fact the Pilkington draw was a sponsor's delight. The separation of the big four survivors - Harlequins, Leicester, Northampton and Wasps - could on Monday give us two exceptional semi-final pairings.

First, though, there is the last-eight hurdle to be overcome and, the experience of Bath and then Orrell at Waterloo having provided a cautionary tale, no one - least of all Harlequins, next up at Blundellsands - is taking anything for granted.

'I fear an upset somewhere in this round and I trust we have the quality players dotted round the team to ensure it's not us,' Jamie Salmon, the Quins manager, quaked. Talking of trust, Quins may be a desperately average league side but we can, annually, trust them to have an extended cup run.

Moreover, the element of surprise on Waterloo's side when they ambushed Bath has now gone. 'Harlequins have so many players off on other duties that they find it hard to put a consistent team together,' Nick Allott, the Waterloo captain, said. 'They look to the cup as the highlight of their season and they won't be approaching us as a flash in the pan, as I suspect Bath and to an extent Orrell did.'

This makes it harder for Waterloo, whose priority is in any case to be playing Quins in the league next season by winning promotion from the Second Division. Exeter, too, may enjoy themselves at Leicester today, though one rather doubts it, but getting out of the Third Division is far more important.

'We shouldn't win - but we might,' Dave Wiggins, their coach, said. To which one would reply: 'Remember Bath.' The same could be said to Northampton, who play Moseley at Franklin's Gardens. 'We are fourth in Division One and they are in mid-table in Division Two,' Barrie Corless, a former Moseley player but nowadays Northampton's coaching director, said. 'There must be a gap in skill we can exploit.'

The one all-First Division tie is at West Hartlepool, where a number of displeased Wasps apparently wish to catch the eye of the England selectors - though they would be better off treating the match as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

'Matt Greenwood has been dropped from the England A bench, Chris Oti is no longer in the squads and there are others who are at least in the best three in their positions who don't get a look-in,' Dean Ryan, the league leaders' captain, complained. Modesty forbade him from stating his own case - he was England blind side against Canada in October - not to mention Rob Andrew, who has become England's ex-stand-off.

In Wales St Peter's have a mundane game against Bonymaen as their reward for knocking out Cardiff. Until a month ago Penclawdd's defeat of Newport in 1980 had been the greatest Welsh giant-killing act and there is a moral here for their successors in unlikely success. Penclawdd went on to play Neath Athletic, a junior side - and lost.