Clancy's curious call sets up another thriller

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The Independent Online

Those poor innumerates who find elementary Sudoku beyond them or require an abacus to work out the price of a pint are still spluttering about the mathematical complications of the Heineken Cup pool system. They should get themselves a life. Once again, the six-pool format has thrown up a final round full of fascination and no little controversy. If there are marginally more dead games than usual, eight of this weekend's dozen matches will be played with extreme prejudice.

This evening's Munster-Sale fixture at Thomond Park echoes the great 2003 Munster vs Gloucester match - the Irishmen have not lost at their spiritual home since Cardiff slipped by them in the 1997-98 campaign, 27 games ago - while tomorrow's contest between Bath and Leinster at the Recreation Ground is a sell-out three times over, despite the fact that the West Countrymen have already qualified for the knock-out phase. As for Biarritz and Saracens, who play this afternoon at Parc des Sports Aguilera... well, winner-takes-all ties always get the juices flowing.

And then we have the strange case of Leeds and Cardiff Blues, who meet at Headingley tomorrow in a fog of political and administrative confusion - a pea-souper of a game if ever there was one. Perpignan will almost certainly win the group, but both their pursuers might make the cut as one of the two best runners-up if they secure a bonus-point victory, especially if the Irish provinces disappear down the pan. The Blues have not performed well this season, but at least they are where they are through their own efforts. And Leeds? Um.

Their match with the Italians of Calvisano was postponed twice last weekend. There was no problem with the first delay, for the surface at the Centro Sportivo San Michele was of ice-rink quality. However, the second postponement caused something of a stink, not least because both Calvisano and the referee, George Clancy of Ireland, were happy to get it on. Leeds begged to differ, presumably on the grounds that they had no intention of skating around to the strains of Ravel's Bolero, and pushed off home.

Quite why Clancy gave the match his blessing remains a mystery, for it is a common-sense rule of thumb among referees, especially in these litigious times, that if one team is reluctant to play, there is no game. Did Clancy come under pressure from a tournament representative, aware of the complications of unfulfilled fixtures? More to the point, how did the board of European Cup Rugby Ltd come to reward Leeds with a bonus-point victory? The Yorkshire side might well have beaten Calvisano last weekend, but there is no guarantee they would have scored four tries - a feat that proved beyond Perpignan, for example.

These matters were exercising the mind of Robert Norster, the Blues chief executive, yesterday. "We understand the difficulties faced by the ERC," he said, "and accept we are not in the best position to offer an unbiased view. However, I believe many will recognise the potentially serious implications of a ruling that run far beyond this one match. The board's decision to enable Leeds to enter our encounter having rested last weekend is obviously a matter with which we, and I imagine other teams in the competition, are less than satisfied. We await with interest the rationale behind the finding."

Leeds have made six changes to the side that did not play last weekend, none of them, it can be assumed, on account of exhaustion. The former All Black captain Justin Marshall returns at scrum-half; Tom Biggs comes in at left wing with Chris Bell reverting to centre; Stuart Hooper returns at lock and captain with Scott Morgan shifting to the back row; and Mike Shelley starts at prop for the first time since October.

Sale have selected all five of their England squad members - Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson, Andrew Sheridan, Chris Jones and Magnus Lund - for the meeting with Munster. They will need them if they are to end one of the longer-running records in modern-day rugby.

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