Bristol the central players in season's run-in
Saturday 29 April 2000
Bob Dwyer is not one of life's natural bit-parters, so it is no great surprise to see him tripping the light fantastic as this season's seemingly eternal Premiership campaign enters its final act. For much of the tournament, his Bristol side struggled to find a role for themselves - as English rugby's equivalent of Shakespeare's third spear carrier, they were seriously short of headlines until they embarked on a fool's errand in pursuit of a certain J Lomu Esq - but five league victories from six recent outings and a good run in Europe have left them as the central figures in a range of intriguing plots.
Victory at Bedford today, for instance, will condemn the Midlanders to a second successive play-off confrontation with the ever-persistent Rotherham, always assuming the Yorkshiremen avoid an outbreak of stage fright and secure the Premiership Two title that has long been theirs for the taking.
Bristol then face London Irish in a rearranged home fixture on 10 May, where a win would enhance their Heineken Cup ambitions while spiking the Exiles' chances of qualification once and for all.
Four days later, they are scheduled to meet Leicester, the Premiership leaders, at the Memorial Ground, although the venue may be switched to Bristol City's Ashton Gate stadium if Bristol Rovers require use of their own pitch for a Second Division football play-off match that afternoon. Once again, the game is likely to be highly significant: the Tigers may well require victory to retain their title and avoid a winner-takes-all rumble with Bath a week later.
Bristol must also visit Saracens in the last round of matches, a fixture that could conceivably decide the last of England's six qualifiers for next season's Heineken. (By way of adding a little extra spice to the occasion, Bristol are attempting to lure Julian White, Sarries' highly rated England A prop, away from Watford). Add to that the fact they travel to France next weekend for a European Shield semi-final with Pau, and were only yesterday dragged before a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel to answer charges of fielding an unregistered player in their last eight victory over Biarritz, and you wonder whether the Memorial Grounders have added Max Clifford to the payroll.
Everything is happening at once down Bristol way. They have offered Joel Stransky, the former Springbok outside-half, a seat on their coaching panel, and want Ellery Hanley, the rugby league great, on board as a defensive specialist. White, meanwhile, has agreed personal terms. "It just remains for Bristol to sort out his release," said his agent, Mike Burton, yesterday. White may have a year of his Saracens contract left to run, but as the Phil Greenings and Nicolas Anelkas of this world have demonstrated, contracts are made to be broken.
When it comes to breaking records, Leicester are the club with the know-how. Already miles ahead of their rivals in audience terms - their league attendances are now past the million mark - they are expecting back-to-back audiences of 17,000 for their two remaining home fixtures, beginning with this afternoon's East Midlands derby with Northampton. On the face of it, the visitors are in no condition to undermine the Tigers' chances of becoming the first side in the professional era to retain the English championship; Pat Lam, the inspirational Northampton captain, is missing from the back row, as is the excellent Allan Bateman from midfield. But derbies are derbies. Tired as they are, the Saints are sure to front up at Welford Road.
At least one issue was resolved to Northampton's satisfaction yesterday.
Their outstanding Premiership fixture with Wasps, moved from its original 6 May date because of the Saints' Heineken Cup semi-final with Llanelli 24 hours later, will go ahead on Tuesday week, four days before the Tetley's Bitter Cup final against ... well, Wasps as it happens. The Londoners wanted English Rugby Partnership, the body charged with running the Premiership, to sanction an extension to the league season - "We're fed up with being treated as doormats," said Simon Crane, the Wasps chief executive - but appear to have lost the battle. "I certainly have no qualms about playing Wasps twice in a week," commented John Steele, the Northampton director of rugby, yesterday.
Wasps, who will almost certainly need to beat Northampton in the Twickenham final a fortnight today to secure a Heineken Cup place, take on Sale at Loftus Road tomorrow. The Greater Manchester club are short of players, short of supporters and shorter still of the folding stuff, but they are about to be acquired by new owners who are preparing to inject the kind of capital required to keep the likes of Alex Sanderson and Steve Hanley at Heywood Road. Sale's professional wing is currently owned by the membership.
On the evidence of this season's performances, the rank and file will be well out of it.
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