Rugby Union: All Black Gardiner boosts Bath ranks

THE LAST time Bath threw some of their precious bar takings in the direction of a teak-hard Kiwi from All Black country, he survived a whole 20 minutes of his first Premiership match before snapping an Achilles tendon and disappearing in the direction of the nearest operating table. Once bitten, twice shy? Not a bit of it. The 1998 European champions were at it again yesterday, trusting to luck that their latest New Zealand signing, the English-born flanker Angus Gardiner, might last just a touch longer than his one-time Canterbury soulmate, Jon Preston.

After weeks of chewing the fat, Gardiner finally closed the door on two wonderful Super 12-winning campaigns with Canterbury Crusaders by agreeing to a lucrative deal. He will stay in Christchurch until the conclusion of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship before flying to Britain in November, by which time Bath will have their World Cup contingent back on board.

With Preston, now fully fit, planning to treat the Bath faithful to a full season's activity, rather than the fleeting glimpse he gave them last season, the West Countrymen are looking formidable.

"Playing overseas is something I've always wanted to do and I'm excited by this opportunity," said Gardiner yesterday, clearly relishing the prospect of joining Ben Clarke, Eric Peters, Dan Lyle and the exciting young Welsh open-side, Gavin Thomas, in a quality loose forward set-up. His Canterbury colleagues were rather less enamoured by his decision, however. "We're sad to be losing an integral part of our success over the past few years," said the Crusaders captain and the former All Black flanker Todd Blackadder.

Having spluttered almost to a standstill last time out, Bath have been one of the more active bidders in the close season transfer market, pulling in the former Wallaby lock Warwick Waugh from Australia and tempting Clarke back from the smouldering ashes of a defunct Richmond. They have new front- rowers too, in Clem Boyd and Matt Filipo, recruited from Bedford and Fylde respectively. But the best news in the bump and grind department concerns Chris Horsman, the outstanding home-grown tight head specialist struck down by cancer last year. He was scheduled to play his first game in 10 months in a local pre-season friendly last night.

Across the Severn in Gwent, the Black and Ambers of Newport were celebrating their second Springbok signing in a week: Franco Smith, the versatile midfielder from Griqualand West who played Tri-Nations rugby for South Africa only a fortnight ago, will join his former national captain, Gary Teichmann, at Rodney Parade this season. "He's a Newport player now," beamed Tony Brown, the Newport chief executive. "Like our other World Cup players, he'll be here in November."

Newport now have six current internationals on their books and their aggressive recruitment policy underlines their determination to secure so-called "super club" status sooner rather than later. Given the prevailing view amongst the Welsh hierarchy that only four such clubs can be supported and the fact that three of the existing ones - Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli - are virtually fireproof, poor old Pontypridd are the team most likely to suffer from Newport's ambition.