Some old, some new, some on borrowed time, some shining through. Four clubs into two must go this afternoon, and though it remains patently ridiculous that nine months' slog can be shot to bits in 80 minutes, tension and theatre are guaranteed in the Premiership semi-finals.
Gloucester against Leicester at Kingsholm is preceded by Wasps v Bath in High Wycombe, the prize a Twickenham final on 31 May. The grapevine hummed with rumours of Marcelo Loffreda's impending removal as Leicester's head coach before last week's dramatic win over Harlequins, yet here he is with his flawed title-holders standing in the way of Gloucester's table-toppers.
The same Gloucester humiliated 44-16 by Leicester in last season's final? Not quite. Mike Tindall, though apparently lame when his side defeated Bath last week, is fit to play. The inde-fatigable centre was absent 12 months ago when Alesana Tui-lagi – recalled by Leicester today as their only change from the Quins win – and Seru Rabeni, currently banned for gouging, ran round, over and through their smaller Gloucester opponents.
"Gloucester have been the best team over the course of the season," said Loffreda, but the Shed-heads know this counts for only one thing, home advantage, and even that is compromised by Leicester's win at Kingsholm in the league in February, when the Six Nations participants were unavailable. Gloucester have since bent the knee at home to Munster in Europe, and the onus is on their pack to get the fly-half Ryan Lamb on to the front foot.
Lamb, 22 today, draws strength from Tindall's presence and two bang-up-to-date successes. "I don't think last season we would have gone away to Wasps and won, then beaten Bath at home to get a home semi-final," Lamb said. "We are all confident, and we've got momentum."
But momentum, by definition, can be lost in a moment. Gloucester finished top last year and won nothing after the same happened in 2003, when Wasps did the party-pooping. The latter's jutting-jawed talisman, Lawrence Dallaglio, is retiring from playing this summer, a mere 18 years after he pitched up in the old Sudbury clubhouse for a trial match and fell in sporting love. Sentiment demands 'Lol' should have one last hurrah at HQ, but sentiment will not make tackles on Bath's ball-carrying forwards – England's Matt Stevens, Lee Mears, Michael Lipman and their new captain, Steve Borthwick, among them – at Adams Park.
Wasps' defeat by Gloucester a fortnight ago was their only stutter in a run of 10 wins in 11 Premiership matches. Among those was a 42-34 victory at Bath, who also lost at Adams Park last December. Look behind the scoreline again, though, and notice that Bath's South African fly-half Butch James was missing on both occasions. He will start today opposite Wasps' Danny Cipriani, whose chip-and-gathertry at The Rec ushered him into England's starting line-up at Jonny Wilkinson's expense.
James came to Bath straight from last October's World Cup final against England and Wilkinson. "Cipriani on attack is a threat from anywhere on the field, whereas Wilkinson, he's the clever guy putting other guys through the gaps," said James. "We can't fall asleep against Wasps again. In the home game we were up quite a bit, then in the first 20 minutes of the secondhalf they scored 21 points."
Andrew David James got his Butch nickname from his grandmother when he was young, and he got his butch reputation as a late-tackling, big-hit merchant from his early Tests with the Springboks. The verdict in English eyes began to be revised by a brave performance on an injured knee at Twickenham in 2006, and has been enhanced by his midfield combination for Bath with Olly Barkley. Is it frustrating, then, that Barkley is moving soon to Gloucester?
"It's not frustration, just a littlebit sad," said James. "Olly's been our best player, and kicks a lot of our points. But the next guy will slot in." Could the next guy in be Frans Steyn, the young Bok hotshot? "I doubt it," said James, who is available to play alongside Steyn for South Africa this summer.
Much to the chagrin of Rec regulars there is a billboard next to Bath Spa station adorned by Dallaglio's larger-than-life face advertising a skin moisturiser. The 35-year-old smoothie has been known to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of referees, and Bath's coach, Steve Meehan, knows it. "We need [today's referee Chris White] to be strong to create a level playing field," he said, "and to cope with the strong characters on their side."
Bath have not won a trophy since the 1998 Heineken Cup, and the sleeping giants were caught napping earlier this month, fined an undisclosed amount over a mistake with player registration, reportedly James playing in the 66-21 thrashing of Saracens while his work permit was temporarilyout of date. "I have no idea what it's about," said James. "The first I heard was my mum phoning my girlfriend over here, asking what the story was." The phone lines will be buzzing if Leicester or Bath or both manage to upset home advantage this afternoon.
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