Rugby Union: Bath maintain the chemistry of success: Champions charged up - Saints manager settling in - England stand-off anxious - Hall proves his fitness

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THE MORE it changes - and at Bath it has just changed more than ever - the more it stays the same. If English rugby's perennial champions maintain their supply of silverware, it will be the greatest achievement of an era when their achievements have been more or less uninterrupted.

Anywhere else the departures of a long-standing coach and three senior internationals would be a seismic upheaval but somehow Bath, however modest the start given by their 23-18 win over the Barbarians at the Recreation Ground, give the impression that nothing much has happened. 'Evolution, not revolution,' says Brian Ashton, the new coach.

Ashton has succeeded Jack Rowell and you could argue that after 18 years it was not such a bad thing for Rowell and Bath to separate amicably. This, however, was emphatically not what big Jack had in mind when he said that continuing success required continually changing chemistry even after the most successful season.

Bath, as it happens, have had the most successful season. And Rowell, now elevated to the management of England, did not imagine the chemistry would be as radical as necessitated by the retirements of Stuart Barnes, Richard Hill and Gareth Chilcott - particularly Barnes's, of which he had no prior warning.

Barnes had metamorphosed into a television luvvie and it is in his and Hill's old positions at half-back that Bath most urgently need a swift chemical reaction. This is not necessarily asking too much: Mike Catt, the erstwhile centre, is a player of the highest calibre and from the end of November Catt will have the Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol eligible to partner him.

Ashton was a scrum-half himself, so scarcely needs reminding that the position is somewhat more pressing than the eventual advent of Nicol. The responsibility for now lies with Ian Sanders, but Ashton noted that with Sanders and Catt in tandem Bath had not 'put any definition' on Saturday's game - a cricitism that was seldom made when Barnes was a player rather than a presenter.

Conclusions as to what may happen as of next Saturday, when Bath kick off their championship defence against Bristol, could not realistically be drawn from this unsatisfying encounter. It was neither the whimsy of a Barbarian romp nor the 'real' thing as defined nowadays by League and Cup.

'It didn't tell us a great deal, really,' Ashton said. Not quite: Simon Geoghegan's two debut tries after replacing Tony Swift at half- time told us he is both a clinical finisher and ready to benefit immensely from having all those outstanding players on his inside. First, he admits, he has to win his place.

The Ireland wing's departure from London Irish was clouded by end-of-season acrimony, making the Rec all sweetness and light by comparison, even though his League eligibility must wait until 8 October. 'I've come here to try to develop as a player, and I couldn't have chosen a better club,' he said. 'I feel I've made the right decision.'

So far so good for Geoghegan, 26, who qualifies as a solicitor in London on Wednesday week, and if this fixture had had more credibility it would have been even better. The Barbarians were helping Bath commemorate 100 years of rugby at the Rec but the uncomfortable reality was that their main event is tomorrow's celebration against the French Baa-Baas.

Saturday, alas, was little more than a warm-up for those who will be in Paris, the Barbarians even having to borrow from Bath to replace their injured players. Thus, one Kevin Yates became a Barbarian before he had played for his own first team, and Rob Wainwright later had to invite Ed Rayner off the Bath bench.

Perhaps it is too early in the season, but the French are having difficulty disposing of tickets for their match, which inaugurates the Stade Charlety, the Paris University Club's new ground, as well as marking the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. Never mind, the quality of the two Barbarian teams makes this the place to be.

In unpropitious circumstances at Bath the Baa-Baas were doing rather well to lead 13-6 early in the second half after the first of Graham Shiel's tries. Paul Hull's confidence as he opened up the blind side for the Scot provided encouraging evidence for domestic eyes of the personal development that turned him into an England player in South Africa.

But 17 unanswered points followed, initiated by Victor Ubogu's battering-ram try and carried on by Geoghegan's two, so that by the time Shiel scored again from a tap- penalty move the victory was already Bath's. If it was a long way from vintage, it was at least decently palatable.

Indeed, the smart handling and continuity that created both Geoghegan tries exemplified the best of Bath, and even their struggle for possession was endearingly reminiscent of recent times past. So were Ubogu's occasional barnstorming runs, quite unintimidated by the presence of Chris Tregaskis among the opposition.

Tregaskis was the Kiwi lock whose reckless footwork made a mess of Ubogu's ear when England B played a New Zealand XV in Hamilton in 1992. Ubogu, for some reason known in the press box these days as the Flying Wedge, is not one to hold a grudge but Tregaskis's was the act of a barbarian as opposed to a Barbarian.

Bath: Tries Geoghegan 2, Ubogu; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 2. Barbarians: Tries Shiel 2; Conversion Joubert; Penalties Joubert 2.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift (S Geoghegan, h/t), A Lumsden, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; M Catt, I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall (capt; E Peters, 75), B Clarke, A Robinson.

BARBARIANS: A Joubert (Natal); D Manley (Pontypridd), G Shiel (Melrose), N Beal (Northampton), M Dods (Gala); P Hull (Bristol), A Gomersall (Wasps); C Lippert (Old Mission Beach), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Clohessy (Young Munster), M Poole (Leicester), C Tregaskis (Wellington), A Charron (Ottawa Irish), R Wainwright (West Hartlepool, capt), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: K Bracken (Bristol) for Manley, 56; K Yates (Bath) for Lippert, 60; E Rayner (Bath) for Joubert, 66.

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgwater).

(Photograph omitted)

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