Peel the only absentee at club game's grand day out

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The Independent Online

Stuart Gallacher, the chief executive of Llanelli Scarlets, described it as "scary", and he was not far wrong. Had the Welsh Rugby Union and their counterparts at Twickenham succeeded in working their evil, this afternoon's Powergen Cup semi-finals at the Millennium Stadium would have gone ahead without upwards of 20 international players, all of them rested ahead of next weekend's Six Nations fixtures.

And then what? Spontaneous combustion at the BBC, who shelled out a good deal of money for the broadcasting rights? A riot of burning and looting by 50,000 people who paid in advance to watch what they had been led to believe were two proper games of rugby? As it is, the competition's title sponsors are preparing to cut their ties.

Who can blame them? Back in the days when the Powergen Cup was an all-English knock-out competition, its place in the great scheme of things was undermined at every turn - not only by the Rugby Football Union but by those clubs who fielded second-string teams while keeping their powder dry for the Premiership and the Heineken Cup. The introduction of the Premiership play-offs tarnished the cup still further. Even when the gin-and-tonic brigade agreed to revamp the tournament as an Anglo-Welsh concern with a user-friendly, regionally-based pool stage, at least 40 per cent of the participants declined to take it seriously.

The fact that this afternoon's matches have generated sufficient interest to attract a Six Nations-sized crowd has nothing whatsoever to do with the efforts of the two unions, both of whom tried their level best to emasculate the event. As it turns out, everyone bar Dwayne Peel, the Scarlets brilliant scrum-half, will be on duty, thanks to some committed fire-fighting by the four semi-finalists. Bath, Leicester, Wasps and the Scarlets have been on the side of the angels in this dispute. Whatever they take from today's proceedings, they deserve double.

If the group phase offered precious little in the way of compelling rugby, the first of the knock-out games between Leicester and Wasps has more than a whiff of the unmissable about it. Inevitably, much attention will be lavished on the contest at No 8, where the England captain Martin Corry finds himself eyeball to eyeball with some character by the name of Lawrence Dallaglio, who rather fancies Corry's place in the Test line-up. Much of the comment surrounding this increasingly fractious squabble has been wide of the mark, for Dallaglio has yet to present the national coach, Andy Robinson, with a convincing argument in support of change. All the same, today's little tête-a-tête will be well worth watching, ideally through a magnifying glass.

Neither Leicester nor Wasps are playing with the urgency or precision they displayed last season, when they engaged in a series of classic confrontations spread across domestic and cross-border competitions. The Midlanders have let themselves go up front; the Londoners have lost much of their intensity. Injuries have hurt the both of them - Leicester are without their first-choice centres, Ollie Smith and Daryl Gibson; Wasps are shorn of the sophisticated play-making skills of their outside-half, Alex King. Even so, the chemistry between the two teams offers hope of something special.

"The build-up and atmosphere before and during the game have all the hallmarks of a Test match," Dallaglio said yesterday. "There is a trend to the results between our two clubs: when Leicester have beaten us in the past, their heavyweights have played very well. It's been the same the other way round. There will be international players littered across the pitch and we both know key one-on-one battles must be won if we are to prevail."

Bath will be at full strength in the pack, where they expect to dominate a Scarlets pack lightweight by comparison. Matt Stevens, the ball-carrying prop who missed England's loss at Murrayfield last weekend, is fit to join his red-rose colleagues - Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Lee Mears - in a unit full of power and know-how. His presence, set alongside the absence of Peel, may tip the balance towards the West Countrymen.

Leicester v Wasps England colleagues go toe-to-toe

* MARTIN CORRY v LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO

The very essence of the union game: one man's attempt to relieve his rival of his most prized possession - in this case, the England captaincy.

* LEWIS MOODY v JOE WORSLEY

The England flankers remain works in progress, but their athleticism is something to behold. Likely to run and tackle each other to a standstill.

* LOUIS DEACON v SIMON SHAW

A tight forward cut from the Martin Johnson cloth, Deacon has fallen behind Shaw in the England squad. Time to fight back.

* TOM VARNDELL v JOSH LEWSEY

Varndell is the hottest finisher around, but Lewsey, all muscle and attitude, will expose any flaws in the young flier's game.

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