Rugby Union: Bath told to earn their European Cup place

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The Independent Online
POOR OLD Bath. The days of endless league and cup doubles appear to have been overtaken by the days of the double whammy. Denied the opportunity to defend their European champions' crown when England's Premiership clubs turned their political backs on cross-border competition last year, they have now been denied an automatic place in next season's brand new, money- spinning, super-duper Continental competition. Like everyone else, they will have to sweat for their place among the elite.

Bob Calleja, the Bath general manager, confirmed yesterday that his club had made a formal request to the Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation, English First Division Rugby, for one of six available places in the 1999- 2000 tournament, qualification for which carries a guaranteed windfall of either pounds 500,000 or pounds 650,000, depending on which marketing man is wielding the pocket calculator. They claimed they deserved special treatment because of their famous Heineken Cup victory over Brive in Bordeaux 16 months ago.

"We argued that we should be given the opportunity to defend the trophy we won in full competition and the request was seriously considered by the EFDR board," Calleja said. "In fact, our case drew support from quite a number of other clubs. However, it was eventually rejected." The decision leaves them in dire need of a victory over Harlequins at a sell-out Recreation Ground tomorrow. The Londoners require only one win from their last three matches to guarantee themselves a place at the top table.

Saracens, another side with Europe on the brain, will move to within one win of a qualifying place if they beat a bemused and befuddled Gloucester at Vicarage Road tonight. Kyran Bracken, the injury-prone England scrum- half, returns to Sarries colours for the first time since March and his august presence should ensure a trouble-free night for Francois Pienaar's side, especially as Gloucester are anything but trouble-free after transfer- listing Dave Sims, the last great Kingsholm folk hero, on Tuesday. Mark Mapletoft, their outside-half, may be the next cherry-and-white international to head for the door after being omitted from this evening's encounter.

Bracken's return certainly makes life easier for the England coach, Clive Woodward, who today names his party for the summer romp in Australia. The red roses are scheduled to spend almost three weeks in World Cup camp off the Queensland coast before returning to the mainland for a run-out against Queensland in Brisbane and a Cook Cup Test against the Wallabies, in front of a six-figure audience in Sydney.

Woodward has already ruled out Paul Grayson, the Northampton stand-off, but may yet gamble on the Leicester centre Will Greenwood, another midfielder with a problematical pelvis. Greenwood, out of rugby and all other kinds of serious physical activity since last autumn, has been much encouraged by his progress in recent weeks and while his chronic lack of matches counts against him, the coach will be sorely tempted to take a chance on his most potent attacking weapon.

A stack of Woodward favourites are among the walking wounded who congregate at the end of the every Premiership season: David Rees and Steve Hanley among the wings, Jeremy Guscott and Phil de Glanville among the centres, and Phil Vickery and Danny Grewcock among the tight forwards. Their recent absences may open the door for a handful of late gatecrashers, including the brilliant Bath wing Iain Balshaw, the Leicester full-back Tim Stimpson and, if there is any justice, the Wasps lock Simon Shaw.