Rugby Union: The First shall come last in cup

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ONE OF the sponsor's men called it the 'magic of the cup' when yesterday's Pilkington fifth-round draw at Twickenham paired almost as many First Division clubs as were left in the competition. In which case he must have meant it was a wicked spell.

As a result of the inadvertant wizardry of Ian Beer, president of the Rugby Football Union, which produced four all-First ties, many of the biggest names in the game will be notable by their absence when the next draw, for the quarter-finals, is made on 24 January.

There is particular piquancy to Northampton's visit to Gloucester, coming as it does with Barrie Corless having hardly begun his five-year term as director of rugby at Kingsholm after helping lift the Saints from the depths during his five years doing a similar job for them. 'In a lot of ways I know more about Northampton than I do about Gloucester,' he said. 'But there are no mixed feelings about this tie.'

Gloucester began recovering from a wretched start to the season when they beat Northampton in the league last month. A subsequent winning run has not only driven them up the table but also sparked a resurgence in the fanaticism for the oval ball which makes Gloucester the greatest rugby union town in England.

As has been noted ad nauseam recently, winning cup ties at the Recreation Ground has become all but impossible over the past 12 years. Apart from Bath, only Leicester have managed this, so it is scarcely a source of delight to Bristol that, Wasps having failed at the Rec last Saturday, it is now their turn.

But they went close enough at home in the season's first league fixture to fancy their chance, a feeling they had reinforced when Bath lost at Leicester in the First Division last month. Derek Eves, the Bristol captain, also takes consolation from the epic, mud-caked 1990 semi-final at the Rec - judged by many who were there as the best cup tie they have seen - when Bristol went as underdogs and came back as the unluckiest of losers.

'Without doubt they are beatable,' Eves said yesterday - which is precisely what Dean Ryan, his Wasps counterpart, has been saying. Saying it and proving it are two different things, though, as Bristol may already have found fulfilling a previous engagement at Bath when the second half of the league programme opens on 8 January.

Harlequins, last season's beaten finalists, were the only First Division side kept away from their peers by Beer, who happens to be an old Harlequin; West Hartlepool, relegated last season, must visit The Stoop.

Leicester, the holders, have beaten London Irish away in the league so are quite sanguine about a home draw against the Exiles, while the leading northern lights, Newcastle and Orrell, will meet at Gosforth.

PILKINGTON CUP Fifth round: Rosslyn Park v Saracens; Newcastle Gosforth v Orrell; Leicester v London Irish; Moseley v Fylde; Harlequins v West Hartlepool; Gloucester v Northampton; Bath v Bristol; Otley v Sale. To be played 22 January.