Bristol fear players' exodus

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The Independent Online
In rugby's turbulent landscape Bath beating Bristol is about the only unchanging feature, so there was nothing remotely surprising in a 19-12 victory at the Memorial Ground which put the holders into today's draw for the Pilkington Cup semi-final.

More surprising was that the occasion became so devoid of inspiration once Bristol had discovered the wherewithal to reduce Bath's rugby from total to partial. By then it was effectively too late to alter the outcome, but in any case Bristol gave no indication in the absence of certain key forwards that they felt they had the remotest chance of winning.

Not surprising, really. This derby relationship - stormy enough on this occasion for the Bristol forward Phil Adams to receive a yellow card after just four minutes for butting - has been simmering for 107 years and even now Bristol have won 124 times to Bath's 66. But Saturday's quarter-final took Bath's winning sequence to 15 since 1988, or 24 in 25 fixtures stretching back to 1982. For some reason Paul Hull, the Bristol captain, does not accept his players have a mental block about Bath.

Anyway, Hull has other things on his mind than the inferiority complex he affects to deny. The market forces unleashed by the new professionalism have brought about such an unholy scramble that the senior Bristol players have called a meeting for tonight to decide whether or not to stay, with no attempt being made to conceal their position that if substantial salaries are not forthcoming they will be off. It is as stark as that.

The prospects change daily. Last Thursday Bristol were saying Arwel Thomas, the Wales outside-half, had signed the previous evening for three years. But by Friday this had changed, so that all he had actually done was give a verbal commitment. In the meantime the new England lock, Garath Archer, and Martin Corry, both of whom missed the Bath game through injury, are said to be receiving daily phone calls from their old club, Newcastle.

Even Hull is equivocal about the future. "I've been approached by three clubs myself, so goodness knows how many clubs have approached Thomas, and Archer and Corry, the two outstanding forwards of this season," he said. "We need some peer pressure to keep them together. I'm quite confident but I'm not going to tell you everyone is going to stay." Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Last Friday Bristol announced the acquisition of the Ireland flanker, David Corkery, and this week they will offer contracts to about nine of their existing players. We can safely assume that all of the above, as well as Kyran Bracken and Mark Regan, will be among them.

Then on Thursday there follows a special general meeting of members intended to turn the club into a private company, thereby - so they hope - opening the door to the substantial investment necessary to fund professionalism. The word is that there are four businessmen out there each willing to put up pounds 250,000 to pay for the first year.

Bath, too, are threatened with an exodus, though for the different reason that they have so many internationalists that many of them are condemned to the frustration of second-team football. Or else the first-team bench - which was where Jonathan Callard, England's full-back before Christmas and an unimpeachably reliable performer for Bath all season, spent his Saturday afternoon.

Kicking heels rather than a football will not satisfy anyone if as many offers are being made as Paul Hull suggests. Bath's course to salvation is to set up a trust at its own emergency general meeting on 11 March which will then establish a limited-liability company offering shares. "The amount of interest in terms of investment is phenomenal," John Hall, the club's director of playing affairs, claims.

Even so Bath - English rugby's bluest chip after winning the league five times and the cup nine times since 1984 - have been slow to reach this point and Phil de Glanville, the captain, went on local television less than a month ago to warn of the consequences if the club did not come up with what might euphemistically be called the requisite contractual arrangements.

This sounds as if the likes of Bath and Bristol are proceeding with a gun to their heads. Certainly, if every transfer story is to be believed, the make-up of leading sides next season - when the only transfer restriction will be seven days - will be radically unfamiliar.

At Bath, Hall promises augmentation of the squad to make it "the most formidable in Europe", which you could argue it already is even if the cup quarter-final fell short of being its finest exposition. Bath began as if the surface were hard and fast instead of a gluepot but the top- of-the-ground runners ended ankle-deep, the best thing about them ultimately being their good intentions.

The one try was an isolated glimpse of what might have been. Ben Clarke's hands were the 16th pair to have contributed to a tantalisingly superior passage of play that by its conclusion was in its fourth phase. Thereafter the rugby became more attritional as Bristol began to win a line-out share and Thomas put his twinkle-toes to mundane use by putting boot to ball more or less incessantly.

In exposing Jon Sleightholme by this means he will have caught the attention of any Scots seeking useful information ahead of next Saturday's Murrayfield match, though Thomas himself could be excused relief that a melancholy personal display - observed by selectorial advisers John Ryan and David Burcher - occurred after and not before selection of the Wales team to play Ireland. He has taken to playing better for his country than for his club.

Bristol: Penalties Thomas 4. Bath: Try Clarke; Conversion Butland; Penalties Butland 4.

Bristol: P Hull (capt); B Breeze, S Martin, K Maggs, G Sharp; A Thomas, K Bracken; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, P Adams, R Armstrong (M Fountaine, 6), C Barrow, E Rollitt, I Dixon.

Bath: M Catt; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; R Butland, A Nicol; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland).