Cup's waning allure leaves upstarts seeking a precious upset

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The Independent Online

A happy and prosperous new millennium? Not for English cup rugby, it won't be. The big guns of the Allied Dunbar Premiership make a belated appearance in this season's Tetley's Bitter Cup over the next 72 hours and for some, it may well be their last. Assuming the various suits and blazers who run this shambolic sport finally agree on a lasting competitive structure for the domestic game, it is highly unlikely that the knock-out tournament will survive in its present form. Some say it will be downgraded, others that it will be scrapped. As one First Division coach said this week: "No one wants to go on the record on the subject, but there is no place for the Cup in the current thinking."

A happy and prosperous new millennium? Not for English cup rugby, it won't be. The big guns of the Allied Dunbar Premiership make a belated appearance in this season's Tetley's Bitter Cup over the next 72 hours and for some, it may well be their last. Assuming the various suits and blazers who run this shambolic sport finally agree on a lasting competitive structure for the domestic game, it is highly unlikely that the knock-out tournament will survive in its present form. Some say it will be downgraded, others that it will be scrapped. As one First Division coach said this week: "No one wants to go on the record on the subject, but there is no place for the Cup in the current thinking."

That much is obvious from the detail of the two blueprints under discussion at Twickenham: Rob Andrew's "Development of the Professional Game in England" document, and Tom Walkinshaw's audacious "Raising the Standards of English Rugby" proposal. In his report, Andrew says of the knock-out tournament: "The Tetley's Bitter Cup is an important, traditional and valued competition throughout all levels of the game. Careful consideration needs to be given to its best position within the proposed European structured season." Revealingly, there is no mention of the Cup in the fixture programme favoured by the former England outside-half.

Walkinshaw, who is pushing the establishment of an £85m British league, does include four Cup matches in his fixture list, but that list is 43 matches long. "Something has to give," acknowledged one Premiership chief executive. "One of the problems with the proposal is that it seems to take up 13 months of a 12-month year. The Cup is definitely below league and European rugby in terms of prioritisation." Walkinshaw's plan to franchise those teams participating in the premier league competition effectively means that only second-string players would participate in a knock-out competition.

Not even the Cup's latest sponsors would deny that the competition has lost some of its lustre since English club rugby went professional after the 1995 World Cup. Cup final crowds are down, partly because those long-established clubs with captive support - Bath, Leicester, Gloucester, Northampton - have failed to make it to Twickenham in recent seasons, but equally because Premiership rugby has cornered the market. Bath, the greatest cup side of them all, travel to Kingsholm for a fourth-round derby on Monday having returned a chunk of their 800-ticket allocation. In the glory days of the Cup between 1985 and 1995, 8,000 Bathonians would have been willing to make the trip.

This season's fourth-round draw highlights the Cup's credibility problem. Only two matches, the Worcester-London Irish game at Sixways and the Leeds-Sale game at Headingley, hold out the remotest possibility of a Premiership One club being turned over by a lower-division outfit, and it is a sign of the times that Worcester and Leeds may well win themselves a place in whatever new domestic structure is launched next season. When franchises are introduced, as they surely will be, the haves and the have-nots will be even further apart than they are now. What price a purely knock-out competition when every half-decent player in England is shoe-horned into a tiny handful of teams?

Monday's programme is overwhelmingly more significant than tomorrow's, although Bristol will feel just a little itchy about hosting the ambitious wannabes of Henley at the Memorial Ground. Of the big hitters, Saracens, the 1998 champions, have an awkward Monday outing at Bedford. "We're playing at home, so there's no reason to think we haven't got a realistic chance," said Philip August, head of administration at Goldington Road. "Sarries are used to playing on a billiard table at Watford, whereas our pitch has been cut up by recent games in the wet."

Leeds, meanwhile, have acquired a certain Richie Blackmore on a short-term contract and intend to run him in the cross-Pennine encounter with Sale. No, we are not talking about the lead guitarist with Deep Purple; as a New Zealand rugby league international, this Blackmore is more interested in silver ferns than Fender Stratocasters. "I've been playing league for 10 years, but I'd be pretty embarrassed if I didn't know my union," the centre said. "Where I come from, it's shoved down your throat."

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