Tigers roused by scent of Baa-baas

Rugby Union: Steve Bale marvels at the enduring popularity of today's traditional festive fixture at Leicester
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As even senior Barbarians, usually the most incorrigible of optimists, are beginning to think unthinkables about the Baa-Baas' future - and indeed whether they have one in this professional rugby world - this afternoon's festive bash at Leicester could scarcely be more timely.

Lest anyone believes the Baa-Baas are soon to be dead ducks, as it were, the biggest rugby club ground in the land remains too small to contain all of the people who wish to be present. The Alliance & Leicester Stand has given Welford Road a capacity of more than 16,000, expanded by demountable stands to nearly 20,000 for this special occasion, and the ground will be full.

Indeed it used to be thought that many of the Leicester club's membership joined up simply for the privilege of a Barbarians ticket - and that was in the days when members were each entitled to two. Now the membership total has passed 14,000 and the allocation is but one each.

Then there are the players. The first half of Leicester's season, in the old pre-league days, was essentially devoted to building towards this match but this year it falls between last Saturday's cup tie at Exeter and this Saturday's First Division visit by Sale. Inconvenient? Not, apparently, if you are a player.

"The match may no longer have its former status as the centre piece of our season but it remains a central feature and the one match more than any other in which our players would rather play," Tony Russ, the Tigers' coaching director, said.

"I know the club would not let it go easily and while we have it we will continue to field a first team as best we can, because once we devalue it, it will not be worth playing. You can argue that it doesn't have any role but in this madcap charge to professionalism we must not throw away all the traditional parts of the game."

To this end there are only four changes from the side who beat Exeter 27-0: at half-back, in the centre where James Overend makes only his second first-team appearance, and at blindside: Chris Tarbuck for John Wells. It is far from ideal that most of the side will have had to play this game three days before meeting Sale, and Leicester did their best to persuade their opponents to postpone the game until Monday, New Year's Day, but without success.

Next year the problem becomes more acute when 27 December falls on a Friday, and Leicester will be seeking the same consideration from the Rugby Football Union as the Welsh Rugby Union gives Cardiff. On Easter Saturday, when the rest of Wales is embroiled in league rugby, Cardiff will be preserving their own traditional part of the game by playing the Barbarians.

Leicester: W Kilford; S Hackney, P Delaney, J Overend, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, C Tarbuck, D Richards (capt), N Back.

BARBARIANS: J Thomas (Llanelli); D Lougheed (Toronto Welsh), L Davies (Neath), G Shiel (Melrose), W Proctor (Llanelli); A King (Bristol University), A Gomarsall (Wasps); M Mika (Otago University), J Hay (Hawick), D Laperne, P Berek (Dax), G Prosser (Pontypridd), A Gibbs (Newbridge), R Straeuli (Transvaal), I Morrison (London Scottish).

Referee: D Bevan (Clydach).