Rowell must worry about England squad

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RUGBY UNION If the weather permits him to be his usual match-day self, Jack Rowell will be an anxious man today, though less about whether Bath make it through their Pilkington Cup fifth-round tie at Orrell than whether his England players make it intactto tomorrow's training session in London.

The game against France, on which will probably rest the Five Nations' Championship, is a week away, yet there is no escape for most of the team from the mud-caked trudge of the cup's last 16. The England manager and erstwhile Bath coach could be excusedfor wondering which English rugby regards as the more important.

This brings us back to a familiar irreconcilable of which Rowell has frequently complained and to which the Rugby Football Union has this season found no answer. Next season will bring an improvement but as by then the World Cup will be over and done with it will not quite be the same.

Rowell has sought to have England players exempted from league fixtures one week before internationals. But for some reason the cup is exempted from these exemptions, as if today's Bristol-Leicester and Orrell-Bath ties, to take the most striking examples, might have a less debilitating effect than the Bath-Northampton and Wasps-Harlequins games a fortnight ago.

It is impossibly inconsistent and if England, in consequence, end up with one or two withdrawals and half a dozen battered bodies it will have been all too predictable. During a Five Nations' Championship, let alone in the build-up to a World Cup, club and country are almost incompatible.

At least the RFU's structure for next season clears three of the four pre-Five Nations Saturdays of any First Division fixtures, the exception being the cup quarter-final weekend that precedes Scotland-England. But for now Rowell, or more particularly his overworked and un(der)paid players, will have to grimace and bear it.

Meanwhile, if Bath are to be denied their ninth cup in a dozen years, Orrell are as likely as anyone to be responsible, especially as the perennial holders have to travel to Lancashire for today's match. It is 11 years to the day since Bath set off towards their first final by beating Headingley. Five league titles and three doubles have followed as well.

"Even though I've been part of most of it I still find it incredible that we've achieved so much," John Hall, captain and epitome of Bath, said yesterday. "Our record will never be beaten, but I intend to make it even harder for anybody to match us in future. We are as determined as ever to win both trophies."

One England player, Ben Clarke, has withdrawn with a calf strain and the England lock Martin Johnson will be spared Leicester's tie at Bristol by the hamstring injury which threatens his participation against the French. Against a towering Bristol secondrow comprising Simon Shaw (6ft 9in) and Andy Blackmore (6ft 8in), Johnson's absence could have repercussions for the Tigers' ball-winning capacity.

In contrast, in Wales the fifth round, or last 32, of the Swalec Cup has only positive international connotations, since Wales's next game is not until 18 February (against England) and Llanelli's game at Glynneath (club president: Max Boyce) brings the return of Nigel Davies and probably Ieuan Evans.