Heineken Cup final bound for Twickenham

The directors of the world's outstanding club competition, the Heineken Cup, spent all of last season promoting a final in Dublin, only to discover they had picked the wrong country. The salutary experience of staging an all-French final in the middle of Ireland has not persuaded them to change their approach. Yesterday, the board confirmed that the 2004 showpiece would be played at Twickenham, even if it comes down to a shoot-out between the Scottish Borders and the Neath-Swansea Ospreys - the very definition of a marketing nightmare.

Much to the relief of all concerned, there is not much chance of the Borders making it to the penultimate Sunday in May. Gregor Townsend admits as much - and he plays for them. "We have Northampton, Llanelli and Agen in our group, and we're in only our second season as a professional side," said the grand old man of the Scotland midfield. "If we can maybe win a home game or two, or at least make life difficult for the others, we'll be better prepared come next year."

Nevertheless, the decision to settle on a venue almost six months before the event is either bold or mad, or possibly both. Derek McGrath, the chief executive of European Rugby Cup Ltd, agrees with the bold bit. "It is definitely a brave stance," he acknowledged. "But we believed it was the right strategy last season, and we feel we should continue with it. Why? Because our aim is to position this tournament in the shop window of world sporting events. If we are to take the competition to the place we think it belongs, we need longer than four weeks to market the final."

If anyone can guarantee a capacity audience irrespective of the identity of the combatants, it is a Twickenham organisation busily cranking up its marketing operation in the wake of World Cup glory in Australia. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, supported the ERC line - no great surprise, given his position as a tournament director - and more or less promised to deliver a sell-out crowd. "In 2000, when we last hosted the final, we had three weeks to promote the match and sold 68,000 tickets," he said. "This time, I believe Twickenham will be packed."

While the competition begins deep in the Welsh valleys on Friday night - Celtic Warriors, the new alliance of Pontypridd and Bridgend, take on the Italians of Calvisano - most eyes will be on events unfolding some 30 minutes later at Stradey Park, where Llanelli meet Northampton in a major-league fixture that should set the tone for the campaign. The Scarlets will definitely be armed with their World Cup players, but it is not yet clear whether their opponents will field their trophy-winning quartet of Ben Cohen, Matt Dawson, Steve Thompson and Paul Grayson.

All four were honoured by their adoring townsfolk yesterday, touring the main thoroughfares on an open-top bus before attending a civic reception at the Guildhall. Wayne Smith, the Northampton coach, has granted them a week's "chill-out" time, telling them to return to the club when they are back on terra firma and are properly focused on the business ahead. No English side would relish a trip to Stradey with a quarter of their senior line-up on the beer rather than on the pitch, but it may be that one or more of the conquering heroes will resume their day jobs when Agen, the crack French side, visit Franklin's Gardens on Saturday week.

Meanwhile, the first eligibility argument of the tournament is up and running. Felipe Contepomi, the Argentinian outside-half who signed for Leinster from Bristol at the end of last season, has been omitted from the match against Biarritz on Saturday while the ERC authorities decide whether his registration is valid. Christian Warner will replace him.

* Mac McCallion has resigned as the coach of Fiji in frustration at the unhelpful attitude of the International Rugby Board towards the poorer nations involved in the sport. "It's really frustrating, the lack of help we get from the IRB and some major countries," he said. "And I can't see it improving."

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