Rugby Union: Wilkinson and King to contest final fillip

Tetley's Bitter Cup: Collision of English stand-offs holds the key while the Geordies' inspirer is enjoying his dotage
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ENGLISH RUGBY union needs a cup final spectacular at Twickenham this afternoon even more than it needs a crowd. Fewer than 50,000 supporters, the smallest gate in a decade, will watch Newcastle and Wasps contest the Tetley's Bitter Cup and while there is no hard evidence to suggest that legions of potential supporters have been turned off by another season of pantomime politics - the real reason for today's box office failure is that neither club has a fan base worthy of the name - there is no disputing the fact that the domestic game could use the pick-me-up of a showpiece classic.

We have not had one of those since 1992, when Stuart Barnes of Bath dropped an extra-time goal to drain the last molecule of spirit from a cussed Harlequins outfit. ("If anyone had to drop a winning goal against me in a cup final, I'm glad it was you," said Simon Halliday, who had recently left Bath for Quins, to the barrel-shaped match-winner. To which Barnes caustically replied: "If I had to drop a goal to beat anyone in a cup final, Hallers, I'm glad it was you.")

If there has been precious little to write home about since - the intervening finals, all but one of them involving Bath or Leicester, have been either embarrassingly one-sided or Scrooge-like in their mean-spiritedness - today's north-south shindig has plenty to recommend it. True, Rob Andrew's shoulder injury has deprived the occasion of its most potent emotional charge; had he played, he might have ridden the same sentimental wave that carried Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella to their winners' medals last season. But the contrasting styles of the two sides, not to mention the key players, should raise the proceedings well above the run-of-the- mill category.

For Alex King, happily restored to the wider England squad after losing the plot in New Zealand last summer, the stakes could hardly be higher. The Wasps stand-off, all subtlety and sophistication, goes toe to toe and brain to brain with Jonny Wilkinson, whose withering left boot and ultra-physical technique marks him out as an obvious red rose No 10 come World Cup time. According to Va'aiga Tuigamala, who knows about these things, Wilkinson is "capable of taking outside-half play to new levels". If King can match his opposite number this afternoon, it will surely be the making of him.

At 24, King still has his best years in front of him, although not quite as many best years as his 19-year-old rival. He remains the shrewdest attacking No 10 in the country and now that he is fully fit - "After what happened to me in Invercargill and Rotorua last summer, I'll never make the mistake of playing injured again," he said this week - he is finally in a position to remind a sceptical public that he was once Clive Woodward's first-choice international stand-off.

Wasps' relatively early qualification for Europe - they booked their seat on the cross-border gravy train last week, while Newcastle must continue queueing until next Thursday night - gives them a theoretical advantage. They can throw everything at the Tetley's pot this afternoon, their motivation sharpened by the pain and humiliation of of four previous final defeats. "No one remembers the runner-up except the runner-up," mumbled Lawrence Dallaglio, the Londoners' prize flanker, this week. "It's time we won this thing."

But Newcastle, tired as they are, have an enviable habit of doing the necessary in must-win matches. "We need Europe, of course we do," acknowledged Andrew. "But when the players reach Twickenham, they will finally understand what it is to be playing in a cup final. It's big news: why do you think Bath and Leicester sweated their guts out to get there again and again, year after year? We've had a mixed season in many ways, what with the all the politics, the abortive move to Gateshead, the change of ownership and losing Dean Ryan midway through the campaign. But we've come through in our own fashion and we're fighting for a trophy. It's a fight we want to win."

They may do just that. Wasps have a game plan but, in Wilkinson and Tuigamala, Newcastle have game-breakers. Don't put your mortgage on it, but the Geordies by a single score.