Just when you thought it was safe to attend a game of rugby without being lassoed by red tape or submerged in a sea of official protests, the governing classes have restored a little chaos to the sport. Pontypridd, contenders for a quarter-final place in what threatens to be a vintage European Shield competition, have been awarded two potentially decisive points as a result of Overmach Parma's failure to show up for a pool match on Thursday evening.
If that sounds entirely reasonable and straightforward, there are one or two interesting details to be taken into account. The game in question was scheduled to be played in Parma last Sunday, but was postponed because of the freezing conditions at Stadio del Rugby. Parma insisted Viadana's ground, Via Learco Guerra, was playable: Ponty felt otherwise, and returned to Wales. By way of breaking the logjam, the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd used its rescheduling powers and ordered the game to be played at Gloucester, of all places on God's earth.
They might have chosen somewhere in the south of France – Toulon, say, or Narbonne. But they opted for Kingsholm, just about the nearest neutral-country venue to Pontypridd it is possible to imagine. Not surprisingly, the Italians were incandescent, and declined to attend. Uncomfortably aware of the prospect of the final round of matches going ahead without anyone in Pool 3 – by unhappy coincidence, the most competitive of the eight groups – knowing where they stood, the ERC tried to draw a line under the affair by handing the points to Ponty yesterday.
End of story? Er, not quite. Parma's spokesman, Corrado Vicci, said last night: "We are ready to go to court against the ERC, the boss of the ERC and also against the referee, Steve Leyshon, who is the third person who has caused this problem." Parma accuse Leyshon of siding with the Pontypridd management in ruling their pitch to be unplayable.
There could also be a protest from Leeds, whose chances of making the knock-out stage at the first attempt have been hindered by Ponty's good fortune. It is possible that Ponty will complain, if results go against them this weekend. Should they lose to Béziers at Sardis Road, and the Italians win at Headingley, all four teams will finish on six points. Under those circumstances, Ponty's low try-count will go against them – and they will undoubtedly point to the fact that they were denied the opportunity of scoring a hatful against Parma.
It is a sorry episode. After a hot competition last season, the Shield was rewarded with its first title sponsor, Parker Pen, and has been shaping up nicely. The exciting tussle between Neath and Bristol in Pool 5 will go to the wire this weekend – Bristol must beat Bourgoin at the Memorial Ground tomorrow, without their Argentinian half-backs, Agustin Pichot and Felipe Contepomi – while in Pool 7 Gloucester must survive an awkward outing at La Rochelle this evening. Elsewhere, Saracens, London Irish and Sale are favoured to join the Frenchmen of Pau in the quarter-finals, as are Philippe Benetton's dangerous Agen side.
In the élite Heineken Cup competition, the five sides already assured of a knock-out place – Leicester, Bath, Munster, Leinster and Stade Français – face must-win matches as they attempt to secure home advantage in the quarterfinals. Bath are in all sorts of strife in the front row and are scouring the planet for a tight-head specialist to face Biarritz in place of John Mallett, whose latest back injury may threaten his career.
Cardiff's chances of sneaking a place in the last eight are shrouded in the usual mathematical complexities of this stage of the campaign, but a victory over Northampton at Franklin's Gardens would do them no harm at all. The Midlanders have named a strong pack containing four internationals, but injuries to Matthew Dawson and Dom Malone have left them so strapped at scrum-half that they are running James Brooks, their gifted young stand-off, out of position.
Two of the weekend's biggest games are in France. Glasgow may become the first Scottish side to reach the quarter-finals if they inflict a first home defeat of the season on Montferrand – the odds are not terribly good – while a Castres victory over Munster at Stade Pierre-Antoine could give them the honours in a furiously contested Pool 4.Reuse content