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'Fatigue factor' worries Ashton

Steve Bale discovers the Bath coach has a boot in both rugby camps
English rugby union's cup and league having been precariously won, it is a form of masochism - albeit highly remunerative masochism at a time when they need every penny they can get - that has driven Bath to tonight's rugby league match against Wigan at Maine Road.

A sum not dissimilar to pounds 400,000 will pay a few bills, though, so a team who at times appeared to be on their collective last legs against Leicester at Twickenham last Saturday will just have to find a new pair. As Brian Ashton, their coach, accepts, his players could have done with months of preparation aimed at this one event.

Instead, they have had a few days. If anyone knows the inadequacy of this, it is Ashton, who - would you believe it? - happens to be a Wiganer whose father, Albert, was on Wigan's books at the outbreak of World War II.

Whatever your view of the merits of tonight's 13-a-side match or the 15-a-side return at Twickenham on 25 May, they are historic occasions after 101 years of league/union enmity. Yet until last weekend, Bath had had to treat this first leg as an inconvenient intrusion while they set about regaining the championship and retaining the cup.

Bearing in mind Wigan are themselves champions, this is hopelessly inadequate, even though Ashton habitually uses league drills in his training for union. But the sum total of Bath's preparation had been two sessions conducted by Clive Griffiths, the Wales rugby league coach.

While everyone else was enjoying the bank holiday, they had another session on Monday morning, followed in the afternoon by a conditioned match against the new South Wales professional league team and a final session yesterday before departing for Manchester.

"Given a reasonable amount of time to prepare, we would have been able to do full credit to ourselves," Ashton, 48, said. "But it's asking a hell of a lot even from as dedicated and talented a bunch as we have to play the first game of rugby league in their lives against Wigan under these circumstances."

The coach's consolation is his hope that, at Twickenham, Wigan will find mastery of rugby union's mysteries - scrum, line-out, ruck and maul - at least as difficult as Bath find those of rugby league. Ashton ventures that in a league context his players' handling and tackling will stand up to scrutiny, and is more concerned at how well they will sustain an unfamiliar defensive organisation.

"It's a question of getting the right people in the right positions, and staying there. One thing that has been pointed out to us is that if Wigan spot a player out of place - for example a prop marking a centre - then they are ready to exploit that immediately. It isn't easy because in rugby union you fill the space that's nearest to you and other players spread out away from there."

Of equal concern is the incessancy of rugby league, the vastly longer period in which the ball is in play and the correspondingly shorter period in which Bath will be allowed to draw breath. "I would be disappointed if our handling skills were inadequate because we always spend a lot of time on ball work and our tackling will have the benefit - physical and psychological - of shoulder pads.

"But handling and tackling might ultimately depend on something else: the fatigue factor. Rugby league players are used to having the ball in play for 60 to 65 minutes, whereas if we get 30 to 35 it's considered a substantial period. On the other hand, there's not the intensive scrummaging or driving mauls or the impact in rucks, and in training the front-five forwards have seemed a lot livelier about the field."

These cross-code matches are made for a rugby man such as Ashton, who played nothing but league at junior school in Wigan but then attended Royal Grammar School, Lancaster, where the only rugby was union. A scrum- half with Fylde and Orrell, he rejected a chance to turn pro for Salford in 1971.

Ashton went on England's ill-starred 1984 tour to New Zealand as assistant coach. In July he will cease to be a teacher at King's School at Bruton in Somerset in order to become Bath's first full-time coach.