Worcester can steal European thunder

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The Independent Online

Worcester, unable to buy a victory in the Premiership between early September and the end of January, are warmish favourites to beat Newcastle in tonight's European Challenge Cup semi-final at Sixways. So what, you say? So this. Should Mike Ruddock's team find a way past Jonny Wilkinson's lot and go on to beat the winners of tomorrow's Bath-Sale tie in the final – and on current form, this is not beyond the realms of possibility – the pressure on places in next season's Heineken Cup will be more intense than at any point since the English first became involved with this cross-border business a dozen years ago.

Both Bath and Sale are chasing top four finishes in the domestic league, and if they secure them, both will qualify automatically for the 2008-09 elite competition. They could make doubly sure by winning the Challenge Cup, which carries the incentive of guaranteed entry. But if Worcester, still sloshing around in the lower reaches of the Premiership despite a sharp upturn in performance, sneak off with the trophy, one or more of England's heavy hitters could easily miss out.

England will have a minimum of six teams in next term's Heineken Cup. Either London Irish or Saracens, semi-finalists this weekend, could make that seven by winning the main trophy, but the heavy betting is on a Toulouse-Munster final. Saracens could really put the cat amongst the pigeons, however. Should they beat Munster on Sunday but fall to Toulouse at the last hurdle, they will, under the competition structure agreed by Premiership administrators, make the Heineken cut as runners-up. This little-known fact will alarm the likes of Leicester and Harlequins as they near the conclusion of an exhausting league campaign.

There is little doubt that Worcester fancy their chances of taking something tangible from their season. Their captain, the former England flanker Pat Sanderson, has recovered from injury; two All Blacks, Sam Tuitupou and Greg Rawlinson, are making their considerable presences felt after a settling-in period; and Miles Benjamin, the new boy on the left wing, is playing brilliantly, to the extent that Ruddock can afford to leave a third New Zealand Test player, Rico Gear, on the bench.

"Playing in the Challenge Cup has greatly benefited us," the coach said yesterday. "We were not strong enough this season to play in the Heineken Cup, but if we can win this tournament, I think we'll be up to the task come the start of the pool phase in October. We've come a long way. This side had always been encouraged to play low-risk rugby, keeping the ball in hand in the tackle. We've gone against that, encouraging the players to off-load in contact and attack space. It's been a difficult transition but through sampling other rugby cultures we've been able to work on our new style."

Talking of styles, the rumpus over the International Rugby Board's attempt to impose ill-considered new laws on the northern hemisphere game in August will move up a notch tomorrow when members of the governing body's "laws project group" attempt to explain their thinking at a presentation in London. The Rugby Football Union is strongly opposed to the current tinkering, which threatens the very existence of such forward-oriented staples as the scrum and maul and will therefore undermine rugby union's cherished claim to be a sport for all shapes and sizes. What is more, a number of high-profile Premiership coaches and directors of rugby – Dean Richards of Harlequins, Dean Ryan of Gloucester, Richard Hill of Bristol and Ian McGeechan of Wasps – are leading the argument against any radical overhaul of the existing laws.

The crucial meeting of the IRB Council is scheduled for next Thursday, and if there is sufficient support for the changes, they will be introduced at all levels of the European game in time for next season. The Welsh Rugby Union has already joined Twickenham in declaring its opposition, and it is thought two other countries with individual votes on the council, Ireland and Canada, will do likewise. But the victory has still to be won, and for this reason, the RFU is carrying out an on-line survey to gauge reaction from players, coaches and referees.

"We have a number of concerns about the experimental law variations and the proposed process that is being followed regarding their introduction," said Francis Baron, the union's chief executive. He and his colleagues are not alone.

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