MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96: Mission to stay a step ahead

The rugby revolutionaries: Bath aim to rule the union fields of Europe as Wigan plan to prove Super League superiority
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IT WAS in Portugal, on the first night of their pre-Christmas training camp, that the players of Bath were given new targets for the New Year. Winning the Courage League and Pilkington Cup, and taking both in style, had been the objectives at the start of the season but these, it became clear, were no longer enough. For the team were then presented with a mission that no one else had ever fulfilled.

Bath team meetings are usually kicked off by John Hall, the team manager; he normally passes on to Brian Ashton, the coach, and then to Phil de Glanville, the captain. One night in Vale do Lobo, the players were told what was expected of them this season. The new goal was to take the league title and to do it without losing a single match in the process. "It's going to be exceptionally difficult," Ashton said. But 10 victories down, only eight to go? "From a theoretical angle, yes, it does seem possible. But it's a lot tougher in practice."

The first task for Bath in the New Year is to beat Leicester on Saturday. The second is to keep their fans in the style of play to which they are accustomed through the worst winter months. What we will see, Ashton said, is a slight technical alteration: the same game, but played in different parts of the pitch. "We'll keep the ball in hand," he said, alluding to some recent performances in which they have scored 50 points. "After all, we quite enjoyed ourselves in the first part of the season."

Bath are embarking on a mission that is far from easy but few would doubt that they are up to it. They have ridden success for many years and are cantering along at the front at present as smoothly as ever. Indeed, they could well have vanished into the distance were it not for the new professional world which threatens the club more than Leicester possibly could.

This is why 1996 is so important for Bath. If the money is found, the players will stay. But even if they do, the team ethic - which has maintained the momentum of success - will be challenged, a point acknowledged by Nigel Redman, who has been with the club since 1983. "Some of the comradeship will go, it's sad to say," he said. "It's a big challenge for the management to keep the team on the rails."

At present, club loyalty has remained. Offers from rival clubs have been plentiful, but the players have stayed to see how Bath will respond. "People will rather give the club the benefit of the doubt," Redman said, "but it's up to the management to put a payment structure in place. I would like to finish my days at Bath, but if they don't sort things out . . . who knows? And that is not a threat, it's just reality."

The players will soon discover their fate. A six-man commission, which includes Hall and De Glanville, has been meeting for seven weeks and will present its report in a month. A special general meeting will follow and, said the commission's chairman, Richard Mawditt, "we are looking to have some sort of corporate investment in place by early spring. Other clubs have taken options quickly; we are not rushing, but there is considerable urgency."

When the financial challenge has finally been met, Bath will face a further test that the professional game has thrown up: a European competition beckons. "I welcome the opportunity for the club to play in Europe," Ashton said. "It will extend the players' education."

They will learn what only a few senior players remember - the ferocity of the old fixtures against the Welsh clubs - and what no one at the club has yet experienced: the challenge presented by other foreign clubs. "The Welsh were always tough," Ashton said, fondly recalling clashes of old. "We had some massive games against Cardiff and Llanelli. I remember one in particular, one Friday night against Llanelli, a real ding-dong battle.

"The only way I can date it," he said, "is by remembering that we had Jim Fallon on the wing." Which brings to mind another challenge that the club could create for itself. Bring back Fallon from rugby league. Now that would be a statement that Bath intend to stay ahead of the race.