Robinson turns Barbarians romp into dress rehearsal

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The familiar end-of-term Twickenham gallop involving some sort of England team and the ubiquitous Barbarians has never quite persuaded the rugby public of its seriousness, and this weekend's episode will be no different, especially as the replacements' benches will resemble sardine tins. The Baa-Baas included 10 substitutes when they revealed their hand yesterday, and the shop-soiled world champions are expected to do likewise today. Only 70 per cent of them will be permitted to take the field, but even so...

Some of the world's more august coaches believe there should be deregulation on the reinforcement front, with an increase to the current limit of seven and the introduction of rolling substitutions in an effort to reduce breaks in play to a bare minimum. Others see tactical replacements, as opposed to those forced by injury, as an unmitigated evil undermining one of the basic tenets of the game: the 80-minute scrap for supremacy between direct opponents. The latter have right on their side, but the former have the wind in their sails.

Down in Barbaria, wherever it might be, the selectors have named some very decent players among their reserves: a World Cup- winning try-scorer in Owen Finegan of Australia, the long-serving Ireland outside-half David Humphreys and the most decorated New Zealand scrum-half of them all, Justin Marshall. These luminaries are in keeping with the starting combination, led by the French hooker Raphael Ibañez and boasting the likes of Matthew Burke, Carlos Spencer, Christian Califano and Olivier Magne - players who secured their place in the pantheon many moons ago, yet still find the wherewithal to grace the Guinness Premiership.

Yet the integrity of this occasion is necessarily undermined by the fact that there is more than a whiff of a trial match about it. Andy Robinson, the England head coach, wants to rehearse as many combinations as possible before next month's demanding Tests in Wallaby country, but on the basis that not even his predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, could fool all of the people all of the time, there is an obvious danger of weakening public support for the fixture by smothering it in ulterior motives.

Next year's Heineken Cup, beset by political problems that may come to a head as early as the first week in June, is continuing to take shape none the less. Newport-Gwent Dragons, currently the weakest of the four Welsh regions, will play Overmach Parma of Italy at Rodney Parade tomorrow week in a winner-take-all contest for the last of the 24 places. Parma missed out on automatic entry in the semi-finals of their domestic championship last weekend - Treviso and Calvisano, who contest the final on Saturday, will again represent Italy in the élite tournament - but have a second shot against the highest non-qualifiers from the Celtic League. The last of seven French places will go to either Castres or Clermont Auvergne, who play in the concluding round of Le Championnat this weekend.

Bernard Laporte, the French national coach, confirmed his intention to stand down from all hands-on rugby work after next year's World Cup, which will be hosted by the Tricolores.

One obvious candidate to replace him is Philippe Saint-André, who has guided Sale to the Premiership grand final at Twickenham, which will be played 24 hours before the England-Barbarians game and is likely to be immeasurably more intense. Saint-André was last night honoured as the season's outstanding director of rugby, a title richly deserved. Mike Catt, the London Irish captain, was named player of the year.

Barbarians XV to face England

M Burke (Newcastle and Australia); B Reihana (Northampton and New Zealand), T Castaignède (Saracens and France), D Feau'nati (London Irish and Samoa), J Roff (Kubota and Australia); C Spencer (Northampton and New Zealand), M Robinson (Northampton and New Zealand); A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila and Italy), R Ibañez (Wasps and France, capt), C Califano (Gloucester and France), B Casey (London Irish and Ireland), T Palmer (Wasps and England), X Rush (Cardiff Blues and New Zealand), O Magne (London Irish and France), T Kefu (Kubota and Australia). Replacements (from): M Regan (Bristol and England), P Bracken (Wasps), D Leo (Wasps and Samoa), S Harding (Northampton and New Zealand), J Marshall (Ospreys and New Zealand), D Humphreys (Ulster and Ireland), I Nacewa (Auckland and Fiji), F Waters (Wasps and England), D Hewett (Edinburgh and New Zealand), O Finegan (Newcastle and Australia).