Hall withdrawal has Bath worried

RUGBY UNION CUP FINALS: Wasps to probe for weakness at Twickenham while Pontypridd seek to fill a gap at the Arms Park
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The Independent Online
BY STEVE BALE

As John Hall has spent the last four years playing on one good knee, it came as a surprise yesterday when he withdrew from the Bath side for this afternoon's Pilkington Cup final against Wasps at Twickenham because he would have had to play with one good shoulder.

Thus will the Bath captain miss what would have been his last game before retiring at the age of 33. If any player in English rugby deserved to bow out on such a grand stage it was Hall, who has defied grievous injury and illness to become perhaps the greatest of all the individuals involved in Bath's long years of success.

Certainly in a cup final if you wanted someone to play for your life it would be John Hall. In his absence, that fundamental responsibility falls to his captaincy predecessor, Andy Robinson, whose selection in preference to Steve Ojomoh as the open-side flanker was made on the basis of this abstract calculation as well as on recent form which did not include the climactic league match at Leicester.

The progress Hall had right up to yesterday morning said he had been making after being injured in last Saturday's defeat by Sale turned out to be insufficient. As the Bath players gathered at the Recreation Ground at lunchtime yesterday to leave for London he was replaced at blind side by Ojomoh, to whom he had been preferred for this final but not by England for the World Cup.

Hall's was the second late withdrawal, Ojomoh's place on the bench going to Jon Sleightholme, a wing, in the same perverse way as Pat McCoy, a lock, had been called in when Richard Butland replaced Mike Catt at outside- half. Hall's vice-captain, Philip de Glanville, will now lead the side in Bath's ninth final in 12 years. They have won all the previous eight.

You can hardly say Ojomoh for Hall has weakened the team and Butland for Catt could even be seen as an improvement given the way the England full-back has performed at stand-off this season. But the impact of the changes, especially the one in the back row, is important psychologically: Hall was considered so important that the initial intention was to get him on the field until at least half-time.

Bath have for years been assumed to be at their most dangerous when they appear most vulnerable but yesterday's twist in their final build-up has unavoidably heightened the feeling that right now their vulnerability for once cannot be overcome. The persistently mediocre performances which cost them their league title reinforce the point.

Naturally enough Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, would not subscribe to this theory, or at least it would be tempting providence for him to say he did. "What has happened is there has been a catching-up process which means opponents don't tend to be overawed by Bath in the way that some once might have been," he said.

"But we're not fooled. They've had quite a lot of disruptions over the last month and anyway you just need to look at the talent and experience they have in their side and suddenly they don't look so vulnerable after all." Even without Catt and Hall, Bath will field nine internationals to Wasps' four.

That said, it is Wasps who have been playing much the better rugby in the approach to the final; indeed you could say they have all season and if they had not at times been completely carried away by their high-risk, fast-and-loose strategy they would have finished ahead of Bath rather than a point behind.

So though today's conditions at Twickenham will be perfect for the running rugby to which Wasps aspire, the 60,000 spectators will have to content themselves with something less flamboyant and infinitely more realistic. When Rob Smith, the Wasps coach, says that for attacking rugby to be valid it has to be used against the Baths and Leicesters just as much as anyone else, don't believe him.

"We will have to make up our minds when we see how the game is going and not go in with preconceived ideas," Ryan said. "People have been queuing up waiting for us to throw it overboard, convinced it couldn't work, and we've sometimes been guilty of extremes in running the ball and have been naive.

"But it was a two-year plan and we recognised early on that in order to learn we may have to lose games. But we know we can't be naive or predictable when we play Bath. That's not abandoning the principle; it's simply recognising we need variety. This is a tactical battle and the way we have played all season forces us to be confident."

This is potentially as enthralling a cup final as there has been, contested between perfectly matched opponents, a game - unlike last year's damp squib between Bath and Leicester - to fit a grand occasion. How daft that, again unlike last year, the vast majority of people not present at Twickenham will have to wait until Rugby Special at 5.20 before they can see it.

TWICKENHAM TEAMS

BATH v WASPS

Jonathan Callard 16/15 Jon Ufton

Tony Swift 15/14 Phil Hopley Phil de Glanville (capt) 14/13 Damian Hopley Jeremy Guscott 12 Graham Childs

Adedayo Adebayo 11 Nick Greenstock Richard Butland 10 Rob Andrew Ian Sanders 9 Steve Bates

Kevin Yates 1 Darren Molloy

Gareth Adams 2 Kevin Dunnl

Victor Ubogu 3 Ian Dunston

Martin Haag 4 Matt Greenwood

Nigel Redman 5 Norman Hadley

Andy Robinson 6 Lawrence Dallaglio

Ben Clarke 8 Dean Ryan (capt)

Steve Ojomoh 7 Mike White

Replacements (Bath): 17 M Olsen, 18 G Dawe, 19 J Mallett, 20 P McCoy, 21 J Sleightholme, 22 A Lumsden.

Replacements (Wasps): 16 H Davies, 17 G Gregory, 18 A Gomarsall, 19 R Kinsey, 20 G Holmes, 21 P Delaney.

Referee: John Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland). Kick-off: 3.0 (Sky Sports 2)

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