Skinstad signs but victory is more pressing for Dragons

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The Independent Online

Contrary to popular opinion in Wales, where opinions on rugby are more popular than anywhere else in Britain, the Newport Gwent Dragons have something going for them. They are unusually well coached by Mike Ruddock, have enough forward muscle to guarantee competitiveness against all but the very best opposition, and are making a habit of winning their home matches. What they do not have, leaving aside the Byronesque figure of Mr Percival Montgomery of Cape Town, is much in the way of star quality.

Contrary to popular opinion in Wales, where opinions on rugby are more popular than anywhere else in Britain, the Newport Gwent Dragons have something going for them. They are unusually well coached by Mike Ruddock, have enough forward muscle to guarantee competitiveness against all but the very best opposition, and are making a habit of winning their home matches. What they do not have, leaving aside the Byronesque figure of Mr Percival Montgomery of Cape Town, is much in the way of star quality.

At least, that was the case until yesterday morning, when the new regional team confirmed the short-term signing of another South African international, the former Springbok captain Bobby Skinstad.

An exceptional back-row talent who always spices his footballing brilliance with a twist of glamour and a touch of controversy, Skinstad has agreed terms for the rest of the season and will help to transform the Dragons' blue-collar, downmarket image. He may have missed the last World Cup through injury, but he is one hell of a capture all the same.

Sadly, he will not be granted an immediate shot at Leicester in this evening's big Heineken Cup match, which is expected to generate record business at the turnstiles and see upwards of 10,000 spectators on the terraces. The multi-purpose loose forward is not registered for this stage of the tournament, and although the Dragons will certainly draft him into their squad if they reach the knock-out phase, the less celebrated threesome of Ross Beattie, Jason Forster and the Wales international Michael Owen must do the business against the former champions.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a crucial fixture. Pool One, which also features Stade Français and Ulster, is as tight as a drum - there have been eight matches thus far, all of them home wins. Leicester top the group on try-count, 11 to Stade's eight, and they renew acquaintance with the Parisians at Welford Road in six days' time. But victory tonight would give the Dragons a major say in the outcome - a degree of influence that seemed entirely beyond them at the start of the campaign.

As Leicester's five-try demolition of Ulster last Saturday was vaguely reminiscent of the Tigers at their best - Harry Ellis, their scrum-half, suggested this week that he and his frustratingly inconsistent colleagues had been scared into delivering the goods because "jobs were on the line" - few collapsed with shock when Dean Richards, the director of rugby, announced an unchanged line-up for this game. However, Neil Baxter and Austin Healey must pass fitness tests on respective hamstring and leg problems, as must the England lock Ben Kay, who has knee trouble. The Dragons, meanwhile, have paired Steve Winn and Hal Luscombe in the centre. Andy Marinos, the captain, is on the replacements bench.

Phil Vickery, one of the front-runners to succeed Martin Johnson as the England captain, spent much of last weekend on the bench, which was as safe a place as any given the pasting Gloucester suffered at the hands of a pumped-up Munster pack in Limerick. Today, he will complete his recovery from a rib rearrangement inflicted during the pool match with Bourgoin before Christmas by starting the return match in the Lyonnais.

If the Frenchmen are still in the competition, it is only in a mathematical sense. Even so, they have enough incentive to sink a battleship today. Philippe Saint-André, who moved to Bourgoin from Gloucester some 19 months ago, has lost only once at Stade Pierre Rajon - to Munster, by a point, in December - and could use a high-profile victory after putting his name forward for the Welsh national coach's job, which becomes available when Steve Hansen returns to his native New Zealand at the end of the Six Nations' Championship. For myriad reasons, the former Tricolore captain cannot countenance defeat this afternoon.

Sale, who must beat Biarritz at Edgeley Park tomorrow to retain any hope of qualification, have lost Mark Cueto, their excellent right wing, to a broken hand, so Chris Mayor moves from centre to fill the gap -a reorganisation that gives two old-stagers, Braam van Straaten and Jos Baxendell, a start in midfield. Sale would have struggled to progress with Cueto and Charlie Hodgson available to them. Without them, the game appears to be up.

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