Rested Bath an ominous prospect

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The Independent Online
Through most of last season, John Hall's persistent refrain concerned the tiredness of his Bath players, how they needed a rest, how hard they found it to sustain the oppressive demands of the incessant round of league, cup and international rugby.

This season he has had what he wanted - though even Hall agrees that a two-month break might just have been too long - and when the Courage Clubs' Championship finally resumes this afternoon, for the first time since 5 November, we can expect the champions to be reinvigorated.

"The fact that we have had a rest is fantastic," the Bath captain said. That is a warning for everyone else and not least Bristol, whom they meet today, or Leicester, two points behind Bath. If the second half of the First Division season goes to the first half's form, Bath's visit to Welford Road on 15 April will be the league's climactic occasion.

"We have to hope so, anyway," Tony Russ, the Tigers' coaching director, said. "I would consider us to be chasing fairly hopelessly if we lost again - unless Bath lost again as well. But then I would consider both of those entirely possible."

First, Bath have to maintain the familiar winning run, which in nine matches was interrupted only by Leicester's draw at the Recreation Ground in October. Today, the leaders play at the Memorial Ground in a derby fixture they have never lost in the league, but in which Bristol have gone so close so often, that some day they have to win it.

Derek Eves's team - without the England full-back, Paul Hull, whose Achilles injury caused his withdrawal yesterday - will find Bath as unaccommodating as ever. "A lot of our players have benefited from the break," Hall said. "We are treating the second half of the season as if it were a new season and that's no bad thing, because it makes it a genuinely fresh challenge."

On the other hand, how well any of the First Division teams come together collectively after so long without competitive rugby - there was a cup round on 16 December - is an imponderable.

Leicester go to the bottom club, Northampton, for example, with Russ anxious that the mid-season hiatus has made planning next to impossible. "It makes managing, coaching and player-development very difficult," he said.

Russ's frustration is compounded by his team's result last time out, a defeat at Bristol which reminds Bath of their prospective difficulties today. Bristol retain - if that is the word two months after the event - the side who ensnared the Tigers.

The situation at the bottom is more fluid. All of the bottom six are menaced by relegation, making West Hartlepool's visit to Orrell and Sale's to Harlequins of critical importance. Gloucester and Northampton would have welcomed less demanding oppositionthan Wasps and Leicester.

Even so, nothing should be taken for granted, and we have no less an authority for that than Hall - who more than anyone could be excused for taking victory for granted. "We would expect to cope with England's Five Nations demands better than others, butit's going to be a lot tougher than last year," he said.

"In the league, there's now so little between the top side and the bottom side that there will certainly be some surprise results in the second half of the season. But that doesn't mean I'm not still confident of winning the league."

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