Rugby Union: Bath set standards for rivals to match

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The Independent Online
THE very notion that Bath might be vulnerable is calculated to ensure they are not. Each season begins with the question, each season ends with an emphatic answer. Last season they did the league and cup double, writes Steve Bale.

If Bath are true to their tradition, they will treat the departure of Stuart Barnes and Jack Rowell as motivation rather than excuse. But the fact remains that sometime even Bath deserve a breather and after four consecutive Courage titles this would be a reasonable season to do so.

On the other hand, loose talk such as Bristol's as a preliminary to this afternoon's First Division opener at the Recreation Ground tends to be ill-advised. 'Bath are frightened to death of our forwards,' Derek Eves, the Bristol captain, said. True, his team twice ran Bath excruciatingly close at the Rec last season but, however narrowly, Bath have won all eight of their league encounters.

As well as Bristol, Leicester and Wasps have realistic hopes - for this one season, anyway - of superseding the champions, and if Harlequins and Northampton change character by playing as well as the names on their team- sheet suggest they should, they too will be in the shake-out.

Leicester meet Northampton at Welford Road; Wasps entertain Gloucester, who may have to be content with simple survival. This season, the dogfight is to avoid not two but one relegation place - the only practical concession the Rugby Football Union has made to the World Cup - and all three northern clubs will be prospering if they are not involved.

Today, Harlequins visit Sale, who were relegated after the Courage Championship's first season, 1987-88, while the outcome of West Hartlepool v Orrell will not only be a significant pointer but could also have a vital influence when the marathon runners cross the line in April.

Bath are 1-2 favourites to retain their Courage League championship. Leicester are second favourites at 4-1 with Wasps 6-1.

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