Rugby Union: Bath come into focus: Barrie Fairall on the showdown of unbeaten Courage league giants at today's packed Rec

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The Independent Online
ALL this talk of a showdown may sound strange with October still to run its course, but this afternoon's meeting between the unbeaten Bath and Leicester could have a significant bearing on the destiny of the league title. There again, assuming the pair can keep winning after their exertions at the Rec, the word showdown might also have to be wheeled out for the reverse fixture come the middle of April.

Whatever, today's match has captured public imagination, though those short of a ticket for a sell-out occasion need not necessarily miss out on the action because Sky Sports has not been slow in an effort to push up viewing figures.

Due to beam basement fare between Sale and West Hartlepool, Sky approached the Rugby Football Union and gained permission to switch live coverage to Bath. Not without the odd headache, the club caught unawares by the demands of television that meant the kick-off had to be brought forward half an hour after most match tickets had gone out stating a 3pm start.

'In theory,' John Quin, the Bath secretary, said, 'someone could turn up at 3pm and ask for a refund, which legally we would have to comply with.' In which case, the club would be approaching the RFU for compensation. Anyone, on the other hand, daft enough to arrive at the Rec that late is probably inviting a short answer.

Anyway, a 2.30 start it is for the most eagerly awaited contest of the Courage season to date, the Tigers leading the race on points difference only and prepared to fight tooth and claw to improve their position. The odds, though, are not in their favour, Bath 5-3 ahead in the league series between the two and having last lost at home in the competition to Wasps in March 1991.

Still, Dean Richards is injury- free to lead Leicester and Neil Back returns from a family wedding to complete a tenacious back row with John Wells. In addition, the Underwoods are on the wing waiting for the ball, and John Liley waiting to kick goals from full-back in place of Wayne Kilford.

And since the narrow win at West Hartlepool, Bath bring in Ian Sanders in place of Simon Johnson at scrum-half, Victor Ubogu at prop for Chris Clark, and Andy Robinson at flanker for Steve Ojomoh. Oh, and lest we forget, Jeremy Guscott plays his first match at the Rec for a year.

So what do those close to the clubs have to say? Tony Russ, Leicester's director of rugby, pointed out: 'Bath have no Barnes, no Hill, no Chilcott anymore and there are signs they have not been quite the remorseless force of old.' Gareth Chilcott, the former England prop now helping to coach Bath, appears to agree - though do not be fooled. 'West Hartlepool were very hard done by. We've lost that bit of continuity.' But then: 'We went out and had probably the best training session of the season.' And the last word is with Peter Wheeler, the Tiger's former hooker. 'They have the ability, but it would be a great coup if they pulled it off at this end of the season with their flat-ball strategy still unperfected.'

As for lesser mortals, Northampton look to break their duck at home to Gloucester, Wasps seek to level with third-placed Bristol at the Memorial Ground, and Quins battle it out in mid-table with Orrell. And in Wales, with the Springboks in town, action is confined to Llanelli's Heineken visit to Newbridge and the second round of the Swalec Cup.

Two more top New Zealand players were suspended yesterday in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest local matches in recent history. Blair Larsen and Mark Weedon were suspended for a week by the NZRFU for punching in the provincial championship final between Auckland and North Harbour last Sunday. This followed a four-week ban on Robin Brooke for a number of indiscretions and a two-week penalty against Eric Rush for elbowing Brooke's brother, Zinzan, in the head.