Bath worried by weak front

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It says everything about Bath's procession through the first half of the Courage Championship that, if they forgot themselves, they could actually afford to dispense more Twelfth Night largess than is their wont during this afternoon's visit by Leicester, writes Steve Bale.

These matches are among the defining moments of any English season, yet Bath's sequence of 10 consecutive pre-Christmas wins has left them with the unlikely comfort of a four-point cushion over their perennially closest rivals. What is more, Harlequins and Wasps too have yet to come to the Georgian city.

Still, this is scarcely a time to take anything for granted. To set themselves up for the remaining eight games the Bath players were in Portugal ahead of last Saturday's game at Gloucester, though as that was postponed the run-in in fact starts here. Phil de Glanville, their captain, scarcely needs prompting to recall that at this time last year Bath were also in front.

"We had not lost by mid-January '95 but dropped eight out of a possible 14 points in the final seven games and conceded the title to Leicester," he recalled. Bath had to make do with the cup, the loss of the Courage trophy being so like losing the family silver that there has been much talk this week of recapturing what is rightfully theirs.

"We should have won the title last year but we had some bad results and threw it away," John Hall, the Bath director of rugby, said. "But we've taken our chances this season and we need to carry that on to claim back what is ours."

Ours? This would be presumption bordering on hubris were it not that Bath had won the league five times in its eight seasons (and the cup nine times in the last 12). However, Bath's disrupted front row provide Leicester with a clear point of weakness to attack and in filthy conditions the leaders look unusually vulnerable.

Then comes the international season. "Like all the other Division One clubs, we haven't played a league match for two months," De Glanville said. "Our [cup] win over Northampton before Christmas was very useful but we supply so many players to the international squads - eight to England for the Western Samoa match - that staying club-focused during the Five Nations takes a major effort."

Bath's superiority at the top and the inferiority of Gloucester and West Hartlepool at the bottom have left most of the First Division with only Europe as their target, though "only" is hardly the word when the inaugural competition from which the Rugby Football Union excluded its clubs has been eyed with such envy.

Gloucester and West have a chance to do each other a disservice at Kingsholm, a home win more or less settling West's fate but still leaving Gloucester at least four points behind the eighth-placed Saracens, who are at home to Wasps. Also in London, Harlequins host Bristol, a match of some significance for Bristol's Arwel Thomas given Wales's outside-half vacancy.

Orrell, involved in a derby of their own at Sale, announced yesterday that they were to put a ground-sharing arrangement with Wigan into action by playing their First Division match against Leicester on 30 March four miles away across the M6 at the rugby league club's Central Park. If successful, this will be the harbinger for all Orrell's league and cup matches to be played there next season.