Harlequins ignore sentiment and drop Leonard for final

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The Independent Online

Jason Leonard, a rough geezer as well as a diamond one, would be the first to confirm that sentimentality and rugby union are uneasy bedfellows - any player getting schmaltzy at Kingsholm or Welford Road, not to mention Dunedin or Bloemfontein, tends to have his career rearranged almost as comprehensively as his features. So England's record-breaking, World Cup-winning prop expected no favours from the Harlequins management as they selected their starting line-up for this weekend's Parker Pen Challenge Cup final with Montferrand.

Which was just as well, for the grand old man of the red rose game has been dropped. Leonard must have hoped to avoid the indignity of being put on the bench for the last game in an extraordinarily long career with London's city slickers, which began way back when in 1990. On the bench he is, though.

Jon Dawson, a heavyweight tight-head who would have been all of 10 when his 35-year-old lord and master first played Test rugby, has been recalled to the front row, where he will join Mike Worsley and Tani Fuga. Leonard is not alone in feeling the selectorial heat at this crucial point in Quins' season; Ceri Jones, a prop forward good enough to have featured in Wales' Six Nations Championship squad as recently as five months ago, is also among the replacements, as is young Irish outside-half Andy Dunne. And they are luckier than some. Chris Bell, an outstanding talent at centre, is not even in the XXII.

Happily, Leonard is a stone-cold certainty to play some part in Saturday's proceedings, which will dictate the shape of Harlequins' 2004-05 campaign, in that victory will give them a place among the Heineken Cup élite. With retirement just around the corner - he has a couple of invitation dates at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium to negotiate before he can start the leisurely process of exploring a memory bank stacked with riches - the reception he gets from a 15,000-plus crowd at the Madejski Stadium in Reading will be well worth experiencing.

Wasps, who face Toulouse in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham on Sunday, have an unwelcome problem in the shape of Fraser Waters' strained hamstring muscle. Warren Gatland gives the outside centre, one of the two or three outstanding performers in this season's Premiership, a 50-50 chance of making the cut, and expects to call it one way or the other tomorrow. Ayoola Erinle, an absolute tank of a 24-year-old who specialises in late breakaway tries, is on standby.

Luckily for the English champions, Rob Howley has declared himself fit. The Welsh scrum-half, a live contender for a third Lions tour this time next year, has a cracked bone in his right wrist, courtesy of a stray Perpignan boot during a Heineken pool match in February. Surgery is a must, but he will not go under the knife until 23 June.

"I can't do contact training, and my weights programme has been hindered," he admitted yesterday. "But we have a big few days ahead of us, what with the Premiership final on Saturday week, and I hope to get through in one piece." Howley had his wrist scanned yesterday, and was informed that a pin would have to be inserted. "The surgeon warned that the flexibility in my wrist might be affected, but rugby is one big risk when you think about it," he said. Howley, 33, will not return to competitive action before November, hence Wasps' interest in the services of the England scrum-half Matthew Dawson, but while he accepted that the operation posed a threat of sorts to the final year of his Wasps contract, he also gave a clear indication of his desire to tour New Zealand with the Lions next June. "I've been on two Lions tours and they were priceless," Howley said. "If I'm playing at a level that warrants selection, I'll be available for New Zealand. I give myself another two years at the top."

Worcester have heard that their promotion to the Premiership has been put on hold for another 10 days while England Rugby Ltd investigates allegations that the National League One champions' planning application for increased capacity at their Sixways ground failed to meet regulations. The chances of Worcester being blocked on a minor technicality are slim, but the wait is no less frustrating.

Leighton Samuel resumed control of the Celtic Warriors last night after ending a deal to sell 50 per cent of the region to the Welsh Rugby Union. "Last Tuesday we agreed to sell our portion of the Warriors to the WRU and completion was on the basis that we were to receive sufficient funds," he said. "We did not receive those funds until 2.58pm today by which time we had contacted the WRU and told them that the deal was off.

"The money has gone into a suspense account and I am seeking an urgent interview with [WRU chief executive David] Moffett to decide what to do."