Anomaly favours 'away' club in neutral semi-finals

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The Independent Online

The whole point of holding knock-out semi-finals at neutral venues is to create a level playing field for the contestants, and they do not come much more level than the superb surface at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, where the penultimate round of this season's Tetley's Bitter Cup will take place in back-to-back fashion on 8 April. Not that the situation is quite as simple as it seems. Nothing in rugby ever is. Even though all four teams will be performing away from home, two of them will be more "away" than the others.

The whole point of holding knock-out semi-finals at neutral venues is to create a level playing field for the contestants, and they do not come much more level than the superb surface at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, where the penultimate round of this season's Tetley's Bitter Cup will take place in back-to-back fashion on 8 April. Not that the situation is quite as simple as it seems. Nothing in rugby ever is. Even though all four teams will be performing away from home, two of them will be more "away" than the others.

For reasons best known to themselves, the Rugby Football Union have decided that Wasps, the holders, and Northampton, the marginal favourites, are "visiting" teams, while Bristol and London Irish are effectively at home.

This will not matter in the slightest unless either - or, indeed, both - the Bristol-Wasps and London Irish-Northampton matches end in a draw after 20 minutes of extra time, and the sides cannot be separated on a try-scoring countback basis. In that eventuality, the so-called "away" teams will get the verdict and advance to the final at Twickenham in May.

Not surprisingly, neither "home" coach was wholly sold on the idea when the Byzantine rules and regulations surrounding the first neutral semi-finals in English rugby history emerged in all their weird and wonderful glory.

However, Dick Best, the London Irish coach, was more concerned at the prospect of his top-of-the-ground counter-attackers playing second on a pitch already churned up by Bristol's heavyweight front five and the stampeding back-rowers of Wasps. The Bristol-Wasps match will kick off at 2.15, with the London Irish-Northampton game starting at 5pm.

Each club has been allocated 4,000 tickets for the 22,000-capacity venue, which has not hosted a top-flight rugby match since Richmond disappeared in a fog of financial failure and bitter recrimination last season. "If we can't fill the stadium for a day of rugby like this, the game really will have a problem," said Bob Dwyer, the Bristol coach, yesterday. The indications are that the Madejski will be full to overflowing.

Both Bristol and Northampton are from traditional rugby areas and the fact that they were separated by the semi-final draw increased the possibility of a first sell-out final at Twickenham since Leicester beat Sale in 1997. Whatever the outcome of Madejski Day, the stakes will be high with the winners qualifying for the lucrative Heineken Cup next season.

TETLEY'S BITTER CUP DRAW

SEMI-FINALS

Bristol v Wasps (2.15pm) London Irish v Northampton (5pm)

Both ties to be played Saturday 8 April at Madejski Stadium, Reading

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