Four of the most accomplished teams outside the English Premiership – Rotherham, Worcester, Exeter and Orrell – will take a swing at élite opposition in this weekend's Powergen Cup sixth round, and it would be contrary to sporting nature if the players concerned were not dreaming of bloodying a snooty nose or two and underlining their credibility as promotion contenders. Meanwhile, their financiers will be pondering the words of Malcolm Pearce, the beleagured owner of Bristol, and wondering whether they will be able to stand the heat, if and when they finally reach the kitchen.
Pearce, the original fan with a chequebook, was in blunt mood when he held court at his business headquarters in Bath yesterday. "The numbers do not stack up," he said. "Across the Premiership, there is a £15m shortfall – £15m that individual investors have to find, simply to keep things afloat for a season. And we are about to enter World Cup year, the very worst year imaginable as far as Premiership teams are concerned. Every owner and major investor is feeling nervous about this, because we will be paying players who are unavailable to us for weeks and months. In effect, we are being asked to purchase a World Cup for England, and the mood among us is such that this whole thing could fall like a pack of cards if the sums are not seriously addressed."
Twenty-four hours after appealing to the Bristol business community for support – he says he needs £1m for his club to make it to the end of the current campaign – Pearce said he was confident of finding someone to share the load. That someone may be Tony Brown, the principal investor at Newport. Rumours of a possible Bristol-Newport merger have been circulating for a week, and while Pearce knocked that idea on the head yesterday ("I haven't spoken to Tony about any merger, and I don't really see how it could work"), Brown may consider buying an interest in Bristol if the Welsh club game continues to stumble from one political crisis to another.
Under the circumstances, then, Bristol's home tie with Rotherham tomorrow is fairly dripping in significance. The Yorkshiremen, denied promotion to the Premiership last season because they failed to meet the agreed criteria, are on top of National Division One once again and look good for a second successive title. They are also at the centre of the Premiership slush-fund allegations, currently the subject of an independent inquiry headed by Mr Anthony Arlidge QC. The Premiership owners, Pearce included, have denied buying off Rotherham in an attempt to avoid relegation, and have reacted to the setting up of the inquiry by seeking legal advice of their own. Messy? You could say.
Bristol have yet to finalise their line-up, not least because Peter Thorburn, their coach, is tempted to rest a number of leading lights for Christmas fixtures with Sale and Harlequins.
Sale are in the enviable position of having Charlie Hodgson back in their 22 for tomorrow's tie with Saracens at Vicarage Road. England's next best outside-half, second only to Jonny Wilkinson in the race for the No 10 shirt at the World Cup, has been injured for 11 weeks, but will certainly play some part in proceedings at Watford. The fact that Bryan Redpath and Charl Marais are also back in the mix suggests a long, hard afternoon's work for Sarries.
Quins, cup specialists of repute, have also strengthened themselves. Four internationals – the centre Will Greenwood, the scrum-half Nick Duncombe, the lock Alex Codling and the flanker Andre Vos – return for the visit of Leeds this afternoon. With Keith Wood, the Ireland hooker, also in the 22 following weeks of injury, it will be surprising indeed if Leeds leave south-west London with their road to Twickenham still open.
Up north, Newcastle will unveil their new signing from All Black country, the inside-centre Mark Mayerhofler, against London Irish tomorrow. The New Zealander's arrival means that Jamie Noon, hardly the worst centre seen in England this season, must retreat to full-back.
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