Rugby Union: Tigers look a picture of health while Wasps come back into focus: Steve Bale on today's battles in the last four of the Pilkington Cup

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The Independent Online
AS SOON as Leicester and Northampton were picked out together in the draw for today's Pilkington Cup semi-finals, Welford Road - the biggest club ground in England - was as good as sold out. Hence the decision to bring in live television was easily made.

Wasps and Harlequins, too, will pull a capacity, though Sudbury is a postage-stamp by comparison. Of the 20,000 or so attending this afternoon's semis, more than 16,000 will be at Leicester. The one thing that is certain about Quins, recalling their squirming quarter-final embarrassment at Waterloo, is that they will all be wearing studs that conform with the laws of rugby.

Live TV coverage of a semi-final is unprecedented, but then so would it be if this were the final itself. Inevitably, there is more to the BBC's interest than meets the eye. Just like last year, the Pilkington final falls on the same day as the rugby league Challenge Cup final.

This is more inconvenient now than it was then, since bidding for the next three-year Five Nations' Championship contract (1994-97) is about to open and contractually they could not put the two oval-ball finals up against each other on different channels. Thirteen-a-side has priority over its 15-a-side forebear.

But that is not of the slightest concern to rugby union folk; the fact is that in two consecutive years the non-international showpiece of the English season, with Twickenham full and en fete, will not have had the coverage the powers-that-be may feel it warrants.

Leicester won the last of their three consecutive cups in 1981 when the final was rather less of an event and there is a powerful feeling at Welford Road that another such era is imminent. 'This is a team who are playing together for the first season and could well not be significantly different in five years' time,' Tony Russ, the club's coaching director, said.

'I see tremendous development to come. We have youth, fitness and confidence - but no great experience in certain positions.' Which is where Northampton, with old dogs such as the captain John Olver, former captain Gary Pearce and above all the

former All Black captain Wayne Shelford, have a clear edge.

On the other hand, Leicester came through fire to win at the last gasp at Northampton in the league. 'On occasions in the past we have laid down a bit when we have fallen behind,' Russ added. 'We had a long period where we would beat Liverpool St Helens 100-0 but lose to the big boys. But now we are competing with the best.'

The Tigers triumphed at Franklin's Gardens by belatedly getting the ball wide. This is how they say they intend to play today; if they do, a thrilling home win is in prospect. And even in the absence of their injured captain Dean Ryan, Wasps have the capacity to do the same, though it would be with little of the grace that Leicester favour.

With or without Ryan in the second row, Wasps would have had a serious line-out problem, but as compensation Harlequins have lost Will Carling, Mike Wedderburn and Richard Langhorn. The timing of the introduction of Chris Madderson, 21, a 6ft 2in wing studying at Durham University, is scarcely ideal and Quins' habit of rousing themselves for cup competition may well for once be more theory than practice.

WELFORD ROAD TEAMS

Leicester: J Liley; T Underwood, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), D Richards, N Back.

Northampton: J Steele; N Beal, F Packman, R MacNaughton, H Thorneycroft; S Tubb, M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, J Etheridge, M Bayfield, P Walton, W Shelford, T Rodber.

Referee: D Matthews (St Helens).

SUDBURY TEAMS

Wasps: A Buzza; P Hopley, G Childs, F Clough, C Oti; R Andrew, S Bates (capt); G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, M Greenwood, F Emeruwa, C Wilkins, M White.

Harlequins: K Bray; C Madderson, M Evans, G Thompson, J Alexander; P Challinor, R Glenister; J Leonard, B Moore, A Mullins, A Snow, S Dear, M Russell, C Sheasby, P Winterbottom (capt).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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