Davies seeks season's salvation for Leeds in overcoming Saints

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Powergen Cup may rise virtually without trace between December, when the Premiership teams see fit to get involved, and mid-April, when the final is played at Twickenham. But it has its uses, particularly for teams like Northampton and Leeds, who have no realistic prospect of qualifying for the Heineken Cup unless they clap their hairy paws around the domestic trophy most successful teams prefer to ignore. There should be a whiff of gunpowder in the air when the two meet on quarter-final business at Franklin's Gardens this afternoon, for without the cup the last four months of the season will be about as much fun as a night on the tiles with Iain Duncan Smith.

The Powergen Cup may rise virtually without trace between December, when the Premiership teams see fit to get involved, and mid-April, when the final is played at Twickenham. But it has its uses, particularly for teams like Northampton and Leeds, who have no realistic prospect of qualifying for the Heineken Cup unless they clap their hairy paws around the domestic trophy most successful teams prefer to ignore. There should be a whiff of gunpowder in the air when the two meet on quarter-final business at Franklin's Gardens this afternoon, for without the cup the last four months of the season will be about as much fun as a night on the tiles with Iain Duncan Smith.

Pretty much the same goes for Saracens and London Irish, who collide at Vicarage Road tomorrow. Along with Harlequins and Worcester, the aforementioned clubs are looking nervously at the prospect of a long, exhausting and deeply unpleasant fight against relegation. While it is possible to argue that a cup run is the last thing any of them need - why risk injury to important players in a tournament no one much cares about? - it is equally fair to suggest that the feel-good factor generated by a march on Twickers can work wonders for the soul.

Even so, Northampton will go in light today. Steve Thompson, a sidestepping Heineken Cup match-winner against Llanelli 13 days ago, has been given an opportunity to rest after picking up a knock against Glasgow in the same competition last weekend. The Saints will miss their captain, who also happens to be England's hooker, just as they will miss Corne Krige, the former Springbok captain, who drops out of the back row for no other reason than the coaches consider it in their interests to award him a Saturday off.

Leeds, semi-finalists last season, have played a cup tie at Northampton in the past, not that they will want to remember it. In 2000, they lost by the not inconsiderable margin of 73-35. Phil Davies, their director of rugby, sees his side as underdogs once again, although nobody considers them to be 40 points worse than anyone these days.

"They are at home," he said, simply, "and they are favourites to progress because of their form of late. Budge Pountney and Paul Grayson (the recently appointed coaches) have done a tremendous job in lifting spirits over the last couple of weeks. When we went down there for a Premiership match on New Year's Day, it was their passion and commitment that got them through."

London Irish have spent the last three weeks kicking their heels after having their European Challenge Cup campaign cut short by the Frenchmen of Pau. It is hardly an ideal situation - even out-of-form sides need to play - but in the unique case of the Exiles, the damage may have been limited. They have been fairly slaughtered by injuries this season, and the enforced hiatus has at least given the medical staff the chance to piece the squad back together.

"During our break, we have tried to strike a balance between training and rest periods," said Gary Gold, their coach, who would like nothing better than to shed a growing reputation for preparing his side to do everything except score tries. "The guys have worked hard when required, and we are really looking forward to playing some competitive rugby again. The outcome of our next three games will shape our season, and we travel to Saracens knowing that they are a good team, rediscovering their true form."

Down in the West Country, Gloucester and Bristol meet in perfect cross-division disharmony. The two clubs have met in the cup on half a dozen previous occasions, Gloucester winning all but one of them.

They are expected to win again this afternoon - Bristol, beaten in extra time by Wasps in the last round, would not be at Kingsholm at all but for their reinstatement on a registration technicality - but although the contest is loaded heavily in favour of the Premiership team, Joe El Abd and company fancy the game to bits. A capacity crowd, a derby atmosphere and the guarantee of some old-fashioned humpty early on - God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

Team News

Gloucester v Bristol (Today; 2.45)

Gloucester rest the wing James Simpson-Daniel, so Seti Kiole starts. Mefin Davies is at hooker and Terry Sigley at loose-head prop, while Adam Balding starts at No 8 and James Forrester drops to the bench. Bristol have David Hilton at prop but their new signings Hentie Martens, Mark Woodrow and Craig Short are all cup-tied. The half-back pairing is Ross Blake and Jason Strange.

Northampton v Leeds (Today; 2.45)

The Saints captain Steve Thompson took a knock last weekend, so Dan Richmond replaces him at hooker. The Scotland prop Tom Smith returns after a 10-week injury lay-off and Shane Drahm starts at fly-half. The Tykes bring in Rayno Gerber at prop and Mark Regan at hooker, while Chris Murphy starts at lock. Scott Morgan therefore moves into the back row, where he is joined by Wales's Richard Parks.

Saracens v London Irish (Tomorrow; 3.0)

Saracens' captain and No 8 Hugh Vyvyan returns at lock, because Simon Raiwalui has a knee injury and is out for four weeks. Thomas Castaignède returns after a calf strain and Kyran Bracken is at scrum-half. Neal Hatley is at prop for Irish after a two-month lay-off while Darren Edwards and Barry Everitt are paired at half-back for the first time since September.

Comments