Cup provides scant motivation for monied elite

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The Independent Online

As recently as the middle of last summer, this Tetley's Bitter Cup tournament was not going to happen. As recently as yesterday lunchtime, various Premiership coaches and directors of rugby - not least François Pienaar of Saracens - were moaning and groaning about the fact that it is happening after all.

As recently as the middle of last summer, this Tetley's Bitter Cup tournament was not going to happen. As recently as yesterday lunchtime, various Premiership coaches and directors of rugby - not least François Pienaar of Saracens - were moaning and groaning about the fact that it is happening after all.

Pienaar professed utter disbelief at the scheduling of a season that allows him to pick a full-strength side for a competition that does not count for much in the great scheme of things, but denies him that luxury for three weeks of the Zurich Premiership, which counts for an awful lot.

And then there are the National League contingent, who should be desperate for an old-fashioned knock-out swipe at their political enemies from the Premiership (The two parties are barely on speaking terms, thanks to the interminable back-biting over promotion and relegation).

Surprisingly, one of the more overtly ambitious Second Division clubs, Leeds, seem decidedly reluctant to test themselves against the might, or otherwise, of the shop-soiled European champions, Northampton. "They have too much experience," said the Leeds rugby director, Phil Davies. "We are going down there as massive underdogs. They'll be too strong, I think."

Given that Northampton are currently unable to consume their half-time oranges without making a total Horlicks of the job, let alone win a game of rugby, one might have expected the Yorkshiremen to be seriously bullish about their prospects.

After all, they have some very decent international-class players: Tony Stanger, Steve Bachop and Dan Crowley, to name but three. Davies should have been saying something along the lines of: "We'll show this lot what they can do with their ring-fencing". Instead, he appeared to spend yesterday apologising on behalf of his club for not being worthy of a visit to Franklin's Gardens.

If all this suggests that the bell is tolling ever more loudly for cup rugby in England... well, that is about the size of it. Gloucester have rested five of their best six players for this afternoon's derby tie at Bath - a match that goes ahead following a pitch inspection yesterday by Ed Morrison, the international referee - while Newcastle, who travel to Rosslyn Park, have granted Jonny Wilkinson the weekend off. Saracens give the great Tim Horan a belated debut at Bedford, but there will be no Kyran Bracken or Dan Luger or Richard Hill. All in all, the Premiership boys are treating the tournament as a optional extra.

Still, there should be fun and games at a couple of venues. The Bristol-Wasps tie at the Memorial Ground is likely to be graced by a couple of injured England internationals in Garath Archer and Lawrence Dallaglio. Archer will be keen on an afternoon's bump and grind after being laid up with back trouble since early September.

Dallaglio, whose thigh problems forced him to miss both legs of his club's Heineken Cup double-header with Stade Français, is thought to be ready for a brisk 80 minutes' work as England's autumn international series looms ever closer. Dallaglio may be big news whenever he plays, but he will find his thunder well and truly stolen this weekend. All eyes, especially the bespectacled ones belonging to Clive Woodward, will be focused on Sale tomorrow afternoon for Jason Robinson's debut as a full-time union professional. The former Great Britain league wing joins another new signing, Apollo Perelini, in the Cheshire club's line-up for the match with Coventry, and it will be a major jaw-dropper if he fails to find a way on to the scoresheet.

First stop Heywood Road, next stop Twickenham? We shall see.

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