Rugby Union: Andrew stung but back on beat: Steve Bale on the return today of rugby union league action in England which looks like a two-horse race

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER month gone and another round of the Courage Clubs' Championship is upon us: league rugby may be very good for the English game, but for the moment the run-in to the title is less a crescendo than an occasional series of disjointed notes.

In fact, it is five weeks since Wasps eked out a win at Saracens and Bath destroyed relegation-bound Rugby to reduce the race to two. Stranger things have happened - you have only to look at last season's First Division fluctuations - but Leicester and Northampton, the next-best placed, will have to go a bit to overtake both of the leaders.

After today there is another wait of four weeks until further league action, though it will be worthwhile as 13 March is the day on which Wasps play at Bath. Lucky Bath. At least next season, when the division will have been reduced by three to 10 clubs, the league cannot be decided on the off-chance of who has home advantage.

All of which presumes Wasps and Bath come safely through today's assignments, the former against London Irish at Sudbury and the latter against Gloucester at Kingsholm, a game which Stuart Barnes, recalled by England, will miss because of a calf injury.

His international predecessor at outside-half, Rob Andrew, has requalified to play competitive rugby, though it has come too late for his England aspirations. When Andrew returned to Wasps in October after 10 months in Toulouse he found himself having to serve his time, 120 days of it. This helped neither the player nor England, and only now that he has been dropped by England does he finally find himself a first choice for his club.

There have been occasions, notably against Rosslyn Park a fortnight ago, when Wasps would not even pick Andrew for friendlies, and the suspicion exists that he is in today's team only because Steve Pilgrim has been banned for having a rugby league trial and Wasps need an alternative kicker.

Andrew's protracted absence from first-team rugby was bound to have an effect, and it duly revealed itself at the worst possible moment: in the febrile atmosphere of Cardiff Arms Park. Whatever the qualities of his keen rival, Stuart Barnes, English rugby has succeeded in shooting itself in its kicking foot.

'After coming back to England the time seemed to go quickly,' Andrew said yesterday. 'There was the South Africa match and the Divisional Championship, but in the new year things have dragged.' Benched he may be by England, but he still has goals with Wasps: the league, in which they lead Bath by two points, and the cup, in which they play at West Hartlepool in the quarter-finals on 27 February.

Bath would dearly love to be in the same situation, but after meeting Waterloo in the cup they have no alternative but the league - and, having lost at Northampton in October, they cannot afford to drop another match, certainly not today's West Country affair.

'Bath know and Gloucester know that we're a side well capable of beating them,' the Gloucester captain, Ian Smith, said. 'It doesn't matter how Bath have been playing, the form-book goes completely out of the window. The Gloucester player is a funny animal in that he loves to play against reputations, loves to feel the underdog.' The trouble is the Gloucester animal is not so keen on lesser reputations. Hence some of the defeats that have taken them perilously close to relegation (which will be virtually assured for Saracens if they were to lose at West Hartlepool). Smith says Gloucester's internal problems have been resolved; a win which could effectively end Bath's championship hopes would prove it.

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