Rugby Union: Bath now seek stability on and off the field

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It is being billed as the biggest game in Bath's history and just for once, the hype has a basis in fact. The West Countrymen have won every national prize umpteen times but never the Heineken Cup.

Chris Hewett wonders whether they can put recent traumas behind them and reach the final at the expense of some French unpredictable opposition.

Charles de Gaulle once asked how it was possible to govern a nation with 240 different kinds of cheese. While Andy Robinson, the embattled chief coach of a Bath team at crisis point, is charged only with meeting the aspirations of a rugby-mad city rather than an imperial power, he has been pondering a similarly unfathomable question all week. Namely: how is it possible to second-guess a French side lavishly equipped with 240 different moods?

Robinson knows that if he and his side get their answers wrong against Pau in this afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final at the Recreation Ground, the consequences could be calamitous. It is too early to say whether last Sunday's unprecedented 50-point shellacking at Saracens has sent the most successful English club side of them all into freefall, but another impotent display today would set off more alarm bells than the Windsor Castle fire.

They have quite enough problems, thank you very much, without seeing their season effectively neutered by the Frenchmen. Tony Swift, the club's chief executive, warned yesterday that failure to improve cramped and obsolete facilities at The Rec could eventually cost Bath their multi- millionaire backer, Andrew Brownsword, and leave them up to their eyeballs in the smelly stuff.

"Either we solve the stadium problem or we slide down into the third or fourth divisions," Swift said. "We are operating at a major financial loss and while Andrew is happy to invest for a while, he has still got to see the potential for a commercially viable business.

"There are three options: improved facilities at The Rec, a new stadium in Bath, or decline." As if to illustrate the point, only 8,500 supporters will sardine themselves into the council-owned venue for today's game, as opposed to the 18,000 or so who wanted to soak up the Pau experience.

Disconcertingly for Bath, they simply do not know what to expect from Joel Rey's combustible band of Jekyll and Hydes. Assumptions about Pau are two a penny - received wisdom says they are lethal at home but fragile away, that their collective discipline is non-existent, that the back five of their pack is not up to much - but then, we all dismissed Brive as the original non-travelling fly-by-nights until they crept into Cardiff and blasted Leicester out of the water in last season's final.

Certainly, Pau have yet to demonstrate an ability to maintain composure in the face of adversity, to "dog" a victory against quality opposition on foreign territory. Rather like Brive last time out, however, they have long identified this match as an absolute priority. While they went down 29-9 to Bourgoin in the French championship last weekend, it should be noted that they spent the entire morning of the game glued to a video of last month's Bath-Cardiff quarter-final.

Nicholas Brusque, universally tipped as the next great French full-back in the tradition of Villepreux and Blanco, will play after recovering from knee trouble. Pau can also look to the withering pace of Philippe Bernat-Salles on the right wing and a David Aucagne-Frederic Torossian partnership at half-back that almost personifies the beauty and the beast conundrum at the heart of French rugby. The visitors' sublime streak has realised 31 tries - more than twice as many as Bath - in their seven Heineken ties to date. At the same time, their violent streak has earned them a heavy fine and an admission ticket to the Last Chance Saloon from the competition organisers.

Tomorrow's second semi-final, the all-French affair between Toulouse and Brive, has generated even greater interest. Toulouse received 60,000 applications for the 26,000 tickets; a sufficiently upbeat statistic to persuade even Cliff Brittle and his provincially motivated muckers at Twickenham that the future of this particular tournament has the word "club" stamped all over it.