The ill-conceived Zurich Championship, criticised from pillar to post over the last fortnight as certain Premiership clubs have come up with ever more imaginative reasons not to treat it seriously, will take a more competitive turn on Saturday, if only for the 80 minutes in which Bristol seek a Heineken Cup place for next season. The West Countrymen may beef up their pack by recalling the former England lock Garath Archer and the out-sized youngster Andrew Sheridan for the win-or-bust match with Northampton at the Memorial Ground.
Both men missed the play-off quarter-final victory at Leicester 12 days ago – an unexpected result that not only ended the Midlanders' four-and-a-half year undefeated home record against domestic opposition, but gave Bristol the sniff of a first ever Heineken qualification. If they prevail against Northampton, who are already in the draw, they will beat Newcastle to the one remaining place.
Julian White, their international tight head, definitely misses the game through suspension, and their senior loose head, Paul Johnstone, is injured. But with Archer, a World Cup lock in 1999, and Sheridan, who toured South Africa with England in the summer of 2000, back in the running, Bristol expect to field a side significantly stronger than the one that did the business at Welford Road.
That victory was dismissed by many observers as an irrelevance: Leicester chose to rest Martin Johnson and Neil Back in advance of the Heineken Cup final, and were widely assumed to be in "couldn't care less" mode. But Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Bristol, has a different take on events that day. "If anything, we had more absentees than they did," he said yesterday. "And anyway, Leicester did not put together a home record like theirs by giving up on games. It was a comprehensive victory for us, and I'd be annoyed if anyone tried to paint it differently."
Newcastle, who narrowly missed out on Heineken qualification at the fag end of the 1998-1999 campaign, are looking vulnerable again, despite finishing two places higher than Bristol in the Premiership. But if the worst comes to the worst once more, they can at least console themselves with the thought that Rob Andrew, their outstandingly effective director of rugby, has committed himself to the club for another five seasons. "I feel I have only scratched the surface, despite having been here for seven years," Andrew explained. "It is a long process, building a team and a club. It does not happen overnight."
Leicester, who expect to lose the outside-half services of Andy Goode to Saracens, are likely to lose a rather more influential player, the inventive attacking wing Geordan Murphy, for the first three months of next season. Murphy requires surgery on the troublesome shoulder he dislocated two seasons ago, but will not go under the knife until he returns from Ireland's summer tour of New Zealand.
Meanwhile, England have named six full caps – Phil Greening, Paul Sampson, Michael Stephenson, Jamie Noon, Nick Duncombe and Pat Sanderson – in their 12-man squad for this weekend's Cardiff leg of the International Rugby Board Sevens Series. It is the last tournament before the Commonwealth Games competition in August, an event at which Joe Lydon's side are confidently expected to challenge for a medal.
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