Andrew aims to avoid repeat of Wasps complacency

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The Independent Online

It is almost a fortnight since Pertemps Bees, the Birmingham-based side lumbered with the most ridiculous name since five West Country musicians of limited ability called themselves Roland Butter and the Continental Breakfasts, beat Wasps to reach the semi-finals of the Powergen Cup, and England's rugby community has just about stopped laughing. Not at the Bees, you understand; they were excellent value for their famous victory. It is Wasps who will forever be hilariously associated with the first truly humiliating defeat of the professional era.

It is almost a fortnight since Pertemps Bees, the Birmingham-based side lumbered with the most ridiculous name since five West Country musicians of limited ability called themselves Roland Butter and the Continental Breakfasts, beat Wasps to reach the semi-finals of the Powergen Cup, and England's rugby community has just about stopped laughing. Not at the Bees, you understand; they were excellent value for their famous victory. It is Wasps who will forever be hilariously associated with the first truly humiliating defeat of the professional era.

By common consent, the Bees have been good for the game. They may prove to be better than good for Newcastle, who face them in tomorrow's tie at Kingston Park and should, assuming they have their wits about them, rescue a wholly anonymous season by making their third cup final in five years. "We will try not to make the same mistakes at Wasps," said Rob Andrew, the Premiership side's director of rugby, who promptly named a side featuring the best players he could muster.

The Midlanders from National League One will not face Epi Taione, the out-sized Newcastle wing, because the Tongan is suffering from knee trouble. For this, they will be extremely grateful. The favourites are understrength elsewhere - no Jonny Wilkinson, no Mark Andrews - but not deliberately so, which makes them a different proposition from the ultra-complacent Wasps. It will be astonishing, to say the very least, if they fail to deal with the threat from below. Newcastle have been profoundly ordinary this term, yet a Twickenham showpiece will give the last few months some shape. Their season hangs on this one game.

Much the same might be said for Leeds, another Premiership team who have stumbled their way through the last seven months virtually unnoticed. Phil Davies, the resourceful Welshman who has spent the best years of his coaching life at Headingley attempting to popularise the union game in the very heartland of rugby league, is every bit as aware as Andrew of the importance of this competition to the well-being of his club. Today's lunchtime thrash with Sale at Edgeley Park is a must-win fixture.

"It has taken eight years of steady progression to reach this point, and I think we've earned a good deal of respect from England's established clubs over the last three seasons of Premiership rugby," he said. "But to be regarded as a great club moving forward, we need to develop a tradition; and to develop a tradition, we need to win things. This is our first major semi-final, our first genuine shot at silverware. The importance of this game is obvious."

Today's tie could, and should, be one of the most competitive of the campaign. The potential goes beyond mere northern rivalry. Sale are an élite club in managerial strife, but have enough high-class players - Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Steve Hanley, Graeme Bond, Andy Titterrell, Chris Jones, Alex Sanderson - to be able to forget their troubles for 80 minutes or so. Leeds, on the other hand, are magnificently stable, but just a little workaday. They too have useful players - Dan Scarbrough, Phil Christophers, Tom Palmer, Alix Popham - but these individuals are falling just a little short of expectations. The exception is Mark Regan, England's second-string hooker. Always a galvanising influence at the fulcrum of Leeds' pack, a big performance this afternoon will put the cat among the pigeons.

Leeds may not be a razzle-dazzle outfit, but they can afford to go into the biggest game in their history without the likes of Aaron Persico, the Italian international flanker, and Duncan Hodge, the former Scotland stand-off who once did for England at Murrayfield. Gordon Ross, another Scot, plays at outside-half, alongside Alan Dickens, once of Sale, who has beaten the highly-rated Clive Stuart-Smith to the No 9 shirt. In the back row, Popham is flanked by Colm Rigney and Dan Hyde, two loose forwards of the workaholic variety.

For their part, Sale have most of their more celebrated players available to them. Most, but not all. Charlie Hodgson and Bryan Redpath, by common consent the most able half-back pairing in Premiership rugby, are still injured. Their absence gives Leeds hope. It is likely to be close.

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