Rugby Union: Bath so dangerous in a crisis

Chris Hewett previews the final taste of rugby union for the league imports
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The Independent Online
Fond farewells will be the order of the day at The Stoop this afternoon. Both Harlequins and Bath will be seeing the last of their expensive rugby league imports - Gary Connolly, Jason Robinson and the Paul brothers, Henry and Robbie - return to the land of the six-tackle on Monday morning and just to make it really interesting, the losing side can also wave goodbye to their chances of winning the Courage title.

Only two of the quartet will be on view in the all-ticket showdown in South-west London; Connolly's knee injury and Henry Paul's difficulties in adjusting to the 15-man game rule them out. Robbie Paul partners Will Carling in the Quins midfield while Robinson, a unique performer unconstrained by the disciplines of either code, plays on the left wing for the champions.

Dick Best, the Quins coach, waxed lyrical yesterday about the impact of the league specialists on both clubs. "They have performed magnificently in an unfamiliar environment. They were thrown in at the deep end of the union game and if the opposite had happened and we had sent union players to league, they would have struggled for six months," he said. "I hope to see both Robbie and Gary in Quins colours again at the earliest opportunity.

Likewise, the Bath management have spent much of the last five months extolling the virtues of their recruits. But the fact remains that both Paul brothers have struggled to secure a first- team place while Robinson, always capable of transforming a convincing victory into an outright massacre, has looked more vulnerable in tight encounters. Of the foursome, Connolly has made the most comfortable transition and Quins will miss his dynamic attacking qualities this afternoon.

Just as they did before Christmas when, having established a 17-3 interval lead at the Recreation Ground, they disappeared without trace in the second half and allowed Bath to kick-start their League campaign after misfires against Leicester, Wasps and Northampton. Bath, who yesterday completed the signing of the Argentinian lock, German Llanes, on a two-year deal worth pounds 175,000, have never lost to Wasps in a league match and at the end of a week that saw the departure of their coach, Brian Ashton, after a prolonged internal dispute, they have no intention of taking another body blow.

"Whenever we are threatened with a playing or personnel crisis, our response is to go out and win well," their captain, Phil de Glanville, said.

It is now becoming obvious that the most successful league-union crossover signing was made by joint leaders Wasps when they enticed the former All Black winger Va'aiga Tuigamala to north London. Rather like Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman and the Quinnell brothers, Tuigamala is an instinctive union player who has benefited hugely from the professional regime he discovered in league. It is little wonder that Wasps are negotiating hard with Wigan to retain his services for the rest of the campaign. "We are very hopeful of reaching a financial arrangement that will enable Inga to help our bid for the double," Geoff Huckstep, their chief executive, confirmed.

Wasps, whose match at Bristol was in serious doubt yesterday because of the frozen conditions at the Memorial Ground, named Tuigamala in a side unchanged from the one defeated by Quins last weekend

Title favourites Leicester have decided against blooding their Springbok outside-half, Joel Stransky, against Northampton at Franklins Gardens. Icy conditions played havoc with the Tigers' preparations this week and Bob Dwyer, their coach, opted to play safe by sticking with Rob Liley.

There was more positive news for another Springbok yesterday; Steve Atherton, the experienced second row from Natal, agreed a 30-month deal with Second Division Richmond. As the holder of a British passport - he was born in Hampshire - the 31-year-old will not count as an overseas player.