Around 65,000 spectators are expected to watch this afternoon's EDF Energy Cup final between Leicester and the Ospreys at Twickenham, which is not half bad, given that the T-word has become as synonymous with backstabbing as it is with rugby. If sales of body armour in Richmond High Street reach predicted levels, the economy will go from bust to boom before James Hook lines up his first kick at goal.
The current behaviour of the Rugby Football Union will not impact on today's match, thank the Lord, and anyway, enough has been said and written about the Martin Johnson-Brian Ashton fandango to last most people a lifetime. (Although it should be recorded that Johnson, whose persuasive powers were not enough to lure the Wasps coach Shaun Edwards away from Wales, spent yesterday contemplating his first failure in a job to which he has yet to be appointed. Really, you couldn't make it up.)
All things considered, the prospect of a game of rugby breaking out amid the committee-room bastardy is the stuff of dreams. The quality will almost certainly be high – the rival replacements' benches, crammed as they are with players as good as Julian White, Tom Croft, Tom Varndell, Duncan Jones, Ian Gough and Jonathan Thomas, tells us that much – and the rivalry runs deep enough to guarantee some spice in the forward exchanges.
If we add to this the interesting positions in which the respective coaches find themselves – Marcelo Loffreda has not exactly captured the full range of hearts and minds at Leicester since taking Argentina to the World Cup semi-finals last October; Lyn Jones is feeling the heat of the blowtorch, not least from the outspoken Ospreys director Mike Cuddy following last weekend's Heineken Cup defeat at Saracens – the ingredients are there for a belter.
It is hard to imagine that Hook, who played a significant role for Wales in their recent Grand Slam campaign, will perform as badly this afternoon as he did at Vicarage Road six days ago. Asked to work the oracle behind an outscrummaged pack who spent precious little time on the front foot, he did so many wrong things in so many wrong places that the Ospreys lost their shape completely. He was also guilty of some ill-judged showboating, which did not endear him to his coaching staff. Here, he will surely be on his best behaviour.
Andy Goode, his opposite number, certainly expects a thorough examination. "James is a fantastic player who has developed well over the last couple of years," said the former England No 10, whose own performance in the EDF semi-final victory over Wasps was as good as anything produced by Hook this term. "He was an integral part of the Grand Slam side and along with Danny Cipriani he is probably the top outside-half in Europe at present. It's good to test yourself against these guys on the kind of occasion that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It will be important to keep him quiet."
In the Guinness Premiership, where seven clubs are chasing four play-off slots deep in the last quarter of the regular campaign, the narrow leaders Gloucester take on sixth-placed Saracens at Kingsholm with a side reshaped from the one that spent last Saturday evening banging its collective head against the brick wall known as Munster. Victory would go a long way towards guaranteeing a place in the end-of-season knockabout, but their increasingly frequent failures on must-win occasions are beginning to weigh heavily. Saracens are in pieces following their heroics against Ospreys, but they are also in high spirits. Not even the most one-eyed Kingsholmite could say that for his team.
Leeds, down among the dregs all season and all-but-certain to be relegated as a result of Worcester's run of form since the end of February, will disappear if they take nothing from tomorrow's home match with Harlequins and Worcester avoid defeat at Wasps today. Talking of Wasps, the road ahead is long and arduous thanks to a couple of recent postponements. They take on Sale on Tuesday night, travel to Saracens a week tomorrow and conclude their programme with three matches – Gloucester at home, Newcastle away, Leeds away – in eight days.
If the Londoners, badly affected by World Cup and Six Nations call-ups, make it to the play-offs in the face of such congestion, it will be an achievement of considerable proportions. Meanwhile, a few miles south as the crow flies – or rather, as the vulture flies – the RFU continues the search for a way out of a morass entirely of its own making. If Wasps deserve everything they get, so too does the RFU.Reuse content