Rugby Union: Bath seek revenge for humiliation

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The Independent Online
The last time Leicester went drinking in rugby's equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon - otherwise known as the Recreation Ground, Bath - they sent their hosts slithering under the table. Although the West Countrymen have struggled since taking that Pilkington Cup beating in February, the indications are that the outgoing champions have finally shaken off the hangover.

Bath's encouraging 25-25 draw at Wasps last weekend left them with a mathematical chance of retaining their title, but the holders' sums do not add up in reality. It is far more conceivable that they will open the door for the Londoners by calling "Time, gentlemen please" on Leicester's bold double bid this afternoon.

Bath's distinctly unfortunate September setback at Welford Road set the tone for their entire campaign. Add to that their cup humiliation - no other word even begins to encapsulate the scale of a defeat that cost John Hall, their director of rugby, his job - and they owe Leicester plenty.

The Tigers, patched up and smoothed over after a fraught week on the injury front, travel at something close to full strength. Stuart Potter and Will Greenwood are back in midfield, Austin Healey's bad back has eased sufficiently for him to take his place at scrum-half and Dean Richards has recovered from a similar injury to start at No 8, with Eric Miller occupying the blind-side berth. They remain quite a side on paper, but the wear and tear leaves them vulnerable to a Bath outfit motivated by revenge.

A Leicester defeat, coupled with a Wasps victory at the fast-fading Saracens, would just about settle the title. If that scenario comes to pass, the title will effectively have been decided by a pair of injury- time tries, each followed by a nerveless conversion, scored in two wonderful matches earlier this week.

Alex King's equalising strike for Wasps against Bath last Sunday just about kept body and soul together for the long-time leaders and when Phil Greening's effort condemned Leicester to a gut-wrenching reverse at Gloucester on Tuesday, the Londoners took possession of their own destiny once again.

True, Wasps must still negotiate a banana skin or two, but at least they will face two of their last three opponents, Sale and Northampton, on home territory. Lawrence Dallaglio's side have advanced to this enviable position with a minimum of noise or hullabaloo but for all their shortcomings up front they have developed an iron spirit to match their stealth.

While some sort of clarity may emerge at the very top, the log jam for places in next season's Heineken Cup will only intensify after today's round of matches. Harlequins have no game, but Gloucester's late challenge continues at Sale.

Richard Trickey, the Sale president, declined to identify the unnamed backers who agreed to stump up pounds 2.5m on Thursday, but he confirmed that a limited company had been formed to purchase the club's rugby arm. By coincidence, the Gloucester membership were meeting last night to consider a financial offer of similar magnitude.

Llanelli would probably trade the lion's share of their precious heritage for such a cash injection. With the very future of their home at Stradey Park the subject of feverish debate, they will attempt to take their minds off an uncertain future by ensuring a glorious present in tomorrow's Swalec Cup semi-final with Cardiff at St Helen's.

With Jonathan Davies joining an already long list of Cardiff absentees - the first-choice back-row trio of Hemi Taylor, Emyr Lewis and Gwyn Jones were ruled out earlier this week, as was the Lions prop David Young - the Scarlets start as firm favourites for a seventh cup final appearance in 10 years. Lee Jarvis, the Wales under-21 cap, replaces Davies, who has a leg injury.

In today's semi-final Swansea face rank outsiders Ebbw Vale at Stradey. The All Whites have seen off the Rhondda side twice already this season and had plenty to spare on each occasion, but Garin Jenkins, the Swansea captain, professed legitimate concerns over possible complacency.

"It was a different story last November, when Vale fielded all their top players and beat us 13-9," said the international hooker. "With key performers like Kingsley Jones and Mark Jones back in the Vale side, we expect a challenge similar to the one we encountered last autumn."

Swansea welcome back Scott Gibbs in midfield - the Lions centre has not played since trapping a nerve in his neck five weeks ago - but will again be without Arwel Thomas and Colin Charvis, two more current international first choices. The hardest season in club rugby history is taking its toll.

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