Rugby Union: Bath aim to bridge the gap: As England build towards the World Cup, new challenges face club rugby's old powers. Chris Rea assesses prospects

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The Independent Online
IN THE same week as the launch of a publication aimed at turning the language of the game's laws into plain English, John Jeavons Fellows, chairman of the Rugby Football Union's competitions sub-committee and a plain speaking man, was at his most obscure. The words he used were straight from the manual of indignant union leaders. Perhaps he has recently taken tea with Jimmy Knapp, but his attempts to explain what action his committee had taken to reduce the burden on England's World Cup squads and his haste to switch the responsibility for making the decisions elsewhere, deceived no one. It was, as Will Carling, who was sharing the same platform, so expressively demonstrated, a pretty poor show.

The RFU have had four years in which to prepare for the World Cup and to reach an accommodation with the players and their clubs, yet with a week remaining until the start of the league season, there is complete confusion. I cannot believe that it would be in England's best interests for their players, as is proposed, to stop playing competitive rugby during the seven weeks between the end of the Five Nations' Championship and the start of the World Cup. It would be a high-risk strategy for players dangerously short of the match fitness and hardness required throughout the most gruelling tournament any of them will have experienced.

What is not in doubt, however, is that, by overloading the country's top players with a punishing league, cup and divisional campaign in the weeks and months leading up to the World Cup, the RFU would be jeopardising England's chances of success in the tournament. At this stage, the clubs may be reasonably relaxed about losing their top players for the last few weeks of the season but it will be a very different matter in the cavalry charge to a championship title or in the frenzied retreat from relegation.

The popular belief is that the clubs with most to lose, should national squad members be withdrawn from active service, would be those who will lose most to the country's cause. On that assumption, Bath, the league champions five times since 1989 and Cup winners eight times since 1984, would be unlikely to win either competition this season. Whatever their fortunes in the coming months, Bath are certain to supply at least half a dozen players to England's squad and with Simon Geoghegan, Andy Nicol and Andy Reed playing for the club, they will in all probability have to supply Ireland and Scotland as well. But such is the depth of Bath's playing strength these days that they can paper over the cracks more easily than most.

For a club accustomed to a decade of almost continuous success, the first priority is to ensure that there is life after Jack Rowell, the guru who became a god at the Recreation Ground. The family he created and presided over with patriarchal authority has begun to break up. Next to Rowell, the club will miss the impish inspiration and improvisation of Stuart Barnes. No matter what the verdict on him as a player of international class, a verdict which will most probably go into the history books as not proven, he contributed massively to Bath's unparalleled record as England's champion club. His drop goal in the last second of extra time to win the 1992 Cup final will remain an imperishable memory, a moment of sporting drama to rank with the best.

Rowell and Barnes are not the only senior members of the team's establishment to depart. Richard Hill and Gareth Chilcott have retired from playing, although both will continue to lend active support to Brian Ashton, the man charged with the unenviable task of guiding the club for so long nurtured and nourished by Rowell. Ashton's character and style might be very different to Rowell's but he has the same single-minded determination to maintain Bath's position as the best club in the land. It would be very foolish to under-

estimate him. He did not, perhaps, receive the credit he was due last season for expanding Bath's previously over-cautious game at a time when other clubs were being shackled by the new laws. Until heavy pitches and sheer fatigue took their toll, Bath were untouchable.

Much as Bath are certain to miss the family elders, the time had come for change. Rowell himself was the first to recognise it and with characteristic thoroughness began to plan for his departure two seasons ago. Gradually, he loosened the reins, devolving increasing amounts of responsibility to those who were to follow him so that when the time came the change would be seamless.

If Bath's pre-season training is to be taken as an accurate yardstick, the transition seems likely to be sublimely smooth. Equally encouraging is the fact that Jeremy Guscott turned out in a practice match last week and came through with no ill- effects, albeit at half pace. Nevertheless, the injury which has kept him so frustratingly inactive for the past year and which has still not completely healed, continues to give concern for his playing future.

Without Hill and Barnes, Bath would dearly like to have Guscott's experience and velvet touch restored to their midfield as quickly as possible. Mike Catt, for all his shining promise in the centre last season, is still some way short of being the finished article at fly-half, the position he will now occupy at Bath and the one which many consider to be his best. In the absence of any other genuine contender apart from David Pears, Catt would seem to be the natural successor to Rob Andrew. At the moment, however, rather like the handful of First Division sides hoping to challenge Bath's supremacy this season, he is a possible claimant rather than the rightful heir.

(Photograph omitted)