Some 35,000 spectators are expected at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff this afternoon for the second Celtic League final, and assuming they all turn up, the attendance will match the number of solutions put forward by David Moffett, the new chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, since he arrived in the capital before Christmas to impose some order on a game edging ever nearer to political collapse. Or to put it another way, it will be close to the tally of points conceded by Wales to England on their last half-dozen trips to Twickenham.
In rugby terms, the Welsh seldom lord it over the English these days. Today is a different kind of day, though. There may be a full programme of Zurich Premiership matches this weekend, including a highly significant set-to between Newcastle and Harlequins on Tyneside, but the contest involving Neath, almost as popular now as they were unpopular during the late 1980s, and the crack Irish province of Munster tops the bill by some distance. Rugby union is good at presenting its showpieces – it has to be good at something – and this is one of them.
There are all kinds of fascinations here. Along with Llanelli, Neath are the form club in Wales. Unlike Llanelli, they are keen to bring an end to the club structure that has held sway in the country since time immemorial and move to a provincial format – a shift that would effectively see them sacrificed along with every other big name west of the Severn. Should Neath win today, the emotions experienced by their ardent supporters will be raw indeed.
Munster, on the other hand, have a rock-solid future ahead of them, and their staggering Heineken Cup performance against Gloucester in Limerick a fortnight ago has strengthened them still further. But they have had a scruffy season in many respects – hammered in Gloucester and Perpignan in their European pool, beaten by Ulster in Belfast during the early stages of this tournament – and there is still a suspicion that they are past their best. Victory this afternoon would do them a power of good, not least because they lost to Leinster, their neighbouring province, in last season's final.
"We have worked hard since the old Neath club hit difficulties in 1997," Lyn Jones, the coach, said, referring to the WRU's takeover of the Welsh All Blacks, who were suffering from financial problems of the most acute kind. "We'll work hard against Munster, too. And the harder we work, the luckier we'll get.
"Munster have proved themselves capable of winning close matches; they always believe they are going to win, and that is something with which we must deal with. But we have a team of substance, one capable of compet-ing. It will be a huge occasion."
Neath, very definitely the second favourites, have the odd injury in the camp: Patrick Horgan, their lively half-back, is out of the equation, as is Steve Martin, their second row. But they have considerable riches in the loose forward department – Alfie Mocelutu, Brett Sinkinson and Nathan Bonner-Evans have beaten Rowland Phillips and the exciting Steve Tandy to the starting places – and if the Jones boys, Duncan and Adam, perform anything like as well as they did in the conclusive semi-final victory over Cardiff, the Munster props will not enjoy a free ride.
Leicester, 17 points off the pace at the top of the Premiership but very much in contention for a top three finish, may recall Neil Back and Fereti Tuilagi for this afternoon's match at Bath – the highlight of many a past season, but distinctly run-of-the-mill nowadays. Meanwhile, Quins have drafted Matt Moore, an England tourist in 1998, on to the wing for their visit to Kingston Park. He replaces Ben Gollings, who is on national seven-a-side duty in Australia.
Tomorrow's Premiership programme sees Gloucester, the clear leaders, on the road at Saracens, where they rarely manage to put one foot in front of the other. Henry Paul, the hot topic of debate at Kingsholm following his calamitous display in Munster, is another away on the sevens beat, so Robert Todd is expected to return to midfield after missing last week's cup victory over Sarries in the West Country. Phil Vickery and Marcel Garvey are also in the frame after injury absences. Their opponents will be strengthened by the presence of Richard Hill and Christian Califano up front, and Kevin Sorrell in midfield.
Another specialist inside centre, the former All Black Daryl Gibson, has been asked to lead Bristol against Leeds tomorrow following Garath Archer's failure to recover from the knock he suffered during the Heineken defeat by Leinster 13 days ago. The West Countryman, beset by financial worries, are lucky to have him.
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