Rugby Union: Bath find fresh incentives to keep on running: Double-take would give Rowell perfect send-off while Leicester seek to continue winning way

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The Independent Online
LIFE after Jack Rowell begins for Bath when top meets bottom at Newcastle Gosforth this afternoon. It is time for England's leading club to get used to the idea that their coach of 16 years has put his country first.

This, incidentally, has not always been the Bath way. No one was ever allowed by Rowell to come back to the Rec from Twickenham with airs and graces, nor will big Jack. The new England manager's formal link will cease at the end of the season, though his emotional link - the umbilical cord, as Rowell calls it - will never be cut.

If Bath need any extra incentive to push on towards the double, their desire to give Rowell a send-off in the manner to which he has grown accustomed is it. With Newcastle, who in their Gosforth guise were coached to the 1976 cup by Rowell, in dire injury straits this is Bath's chance to extend the points-difference advantage over Leicester that has steadily dwindled to its present, negligible four.

Not that Bath are at full strength, not with Phil de Glanville on holiday, Ben Clarke in Hong Kong and Victor Ubogu resting. De Glanville's absence means a debut at centre for Ed Rayner, the Oxford Blue. Should they lose today, Newcastle's relegation after one First Division season becomes a mathematical certainty.

Bath's margin has been whittled down since Leicester inflicted their only defeat in December, with a huge chunk of points removed when the Tigers put 60 on Newcastle a fortnight ago. With Bath staying two league points ahead, it is building towards a decisive collision between the top two at the Rec on 9 April, after Bath and Leicester have played Pilkington Cup semi-final ties.

Today, Leicester play Bath's cup opponents, Harlequins, at The Stoop - a game in which it would be just about possible to imagine a Tigers defeat if only Quins replicated the do-or-die attitude which helped them win at Leicester in November. If only . . .

Given a weakened Harlequins side, it is hard to imagine. If it did happen, it would as good as pass the title to Bath for a fourth successive season. 'League games are now like cup matches; we can't afford to lose any of them,' Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, said yesterday.

His team's winning run extends 16 games back to the visit of Quins. 'We are the team to beat in English rugby at the moment,' Russ added. Tony Underwood is with Clarke at the Hong Kong Sevens but otherwise Leicester are at full strength, Tony being replaced by a useful deputy, his elder brother, Rory.

If Quins approached their league commitments as diligently as they will next Saturday's semi-final, they might one day win the Courage trophy as well as the cup. That'll be the day. As for today, Will Carling has a thumb injury, Jason Leonard is at the Hong Kong Tens and Chris Sheasby at the Hong Kong Sevens.

David Pears failed a fitness test on the pulled hamstring which put him out of England's game against Wales and Jeff Alexander is ill. Simon Dear and Justyn Cassell have been dropped. Apart from that, everything at Quins is fine - or rather will be when they are up for the cup.

----------------------------------------------------------------- COURAGE CLUBS' CHAMPIONSHIP TOP TWO ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Bath 14 13 0 1 324 126 26 Leicester 14 12 0 2 334 140 24 REMAINING FIXTURES BATH: 26 March Newcastle Gosforth (a); 9 April Leicester (h); 23 April Harlequins (h); 30 April London Irish (a). LEICESTER: 26 March Harlequins (a); 9 April Bath (a); 23 April London Irish (h); 30 April Bristol (a). -----------------------------------------------------------------