Bath in line for a pain game

Jonathan Davies says the Courage champions must aim to limit their losses
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The Independent Online
I'm happy to offer a little advice to Bath before their rugby league match against Wigan this week, but I can't offer them any hope. Indeed, they will have to brace themselves for a very heavy defeat. If Wigan are in the mood, I can't see Bath holding them to under 50 points.

I don't take any delight in predicting that because I've had long love affairs with both codes, and I hope that there will not be any excessive gloating up north because it won't prove anything. When the teams meet under union rules two weeks later, the boot will be on the other throat, so to speak, although the second game will be a lot closer than the one we'll see on Wednesday.

For a start, Bath have not been able to put in enough preparation. They have been busy winning the Courage League and getting to yesterday's cup final at Twickenham. Wigan have had the luxury of a rare break because they did not go to Wembley, and you can be sure that they've made the fullest use of that time.

Bath will have the good sense, I trust, to leave the props at home and fill the pack with as many back-row men as they can, because mobility is essential. Then they should be prepared for a challenge to their stamina like they have never faced before.

League people always claim that their players are fitter than their union counterparts. I'm not so sure that is true in every case. What is certain is that league is a far greater test of fitness because the pace never lets up. There are very few natural stoppages. Bath will find that the simple matter of continually retreating the 10 metres will tire them out - and that's before they start running and tackling. My advice would be to make sure they defend as resolutely as they can. A key to that is to keep the defensive line straight. Once defenders drift ahead of each other and the line starts to look like a dog-leg, Wigan will hit the gaps with angled runs that will tear them apart.

Defenders must stay square and try to force them to go outside. And they must be sure to support the tackler. When a Wigan player is tackled he will off-load it in a flash, so one man hitting him low isn't enough. Another must hit him high in a double tackle.

The more Bath keep the ball, the better their chances of avoiding a massacre. In possession, they must play out all six tackles and protect the ball with their lives. Apart from the obvious advice of not letting it go when they reach the ground, it will help if they execute the play-the-ball as quickly as possibly. And the runner must be supported. If a man goes off on a solo run, three defenders will hit him at the same time and he won't do it again. If he is supported, they will have to cover for the pass and will not be able to gang-tackle.

Bath have good kickers in Mike Catt and Jon Callard, and they must make huge amounts of ground when they are kicking out of defence on the sixth tackle. They will have to use their judgment about kicking earlier in the sequence. I don't advise it, but if they are really in trouble in defence it will gain them a respite from the pressure. I'm sure they will remember the danger of kicking it into touch on the full and, whenever they kick, the team must chase it hard. Wigan will run it back at them at 100 mph if they get the space.

But Bath's success, or the degree of their failure, will depend on how they cope with the continuous flow of the game. They will get so tired that tackling will become a merciless chore. But they've got to keep going. There are no line-outs, no rucks, no mauls and very few scrums that will bring a breather.

Bath have a very good side and some excellent players. I hope they enjoy the experience for what it is - the first historic meeting of the two codes. Whatever happens, there will be no disgrace for them as far as I am concerned. Everyone who has changed to league has found it murderously difficult on his own. For all 13 to try at the same time is a very commendable and sporting gesture. I don't envy them, but I applaud them in advance.