Rugby Union: Bath's travelling circus heads for The Stoop

THANKS TO John le Carre, the nerve-centre of Britain's espionage community will forever be known as "The Circus". There are clear parallels here with Bath Rugby Club, not simply because the workforce have performed like clowns in their pre-season friendlies, but because the coaches are now so secretive about who will be playing, and where, that they are in danger of making George Smiley resemble Max Clifford. And, like all closed societies, they are leaking information by the gallon.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, has demanded a vow of silence from his charges; a fairly disconcerting development given that the opening weekend of the Premiership campaign seems just a little early for rampant paranoia. But plenty of whispers are circulating about Bath's line-up at Harlequins this afternoon, the most interesting of which concerns a possible return to front-line duty, perhaps as captain, for Robinson's back-room assistant Jon Callard.

The former England full-back, now 33 and counting, made only three Premiership starts last season, although he Zimmer-framed his way off the bench on two further occasions. Yet Bath seem strangely reluctant to play the lightning-quick youngster Iain Balshaw in his favourite position until Matt Perry, the undisputed first choice at the Recreation Ground, returns from World Cup business with England. According to club sources, Balshaw's immediate future lies on the right wing.

That may change if either of two Scottish wings, Torquil Mathewson of Glasgow Hawks and Steven Reed of Currie, cut the mustard in the West Country. Both have interested Robinson for some time and were due in Bath for a trial this week. Mathewson, in particular, may fancy a move south after failing to win a professional contract with the Glasgow Caledonians super- district side.

Harlequins, who registered a first ever league victory at the Recreation Ground on a highly-charged afternoon last May, were nowhere near as coy about their team selection yesterday. Injury has cost them the services of their new flanker from Sale, Pat Sanderson, but Brendon Daniel makes his Stoop debut on the left wing after being released by Saracens last season. There is also a sentimental return to the shop window for David Pears, who went from England outside-half to midfield dogsbody at Wharfedale following a spate of fitness problems, and is now keen to resurrect a once promising career.

There are changes up front, too, where Kevin Nepia, a New Zealand front- rower directly descended from the great Maori full-back of the 1920s, George Nepia, makes his Allied Dunbar debut. Steve White-Cooper, sufficiently impressive towards the end of last season to save himself from the dole queue, joins the mountainous former Wallaby Garrick Morgan in the second row, while Zinzan Brooke and Chris Sheasby feature among the breakaways.

Gloucester welcome back their impressive young England loose-head prop Trevor Woodman for this afternoon's route-one confrontation with Newcastle - a highly physical curtain-raiser if ever there was one. There is no place for Richie Tombs, though. The been-there-and-seen-it-all Australian centre, so often lauded as the "conscience" of the Gloucester team, loses out to a new midfield combination featuring Chris Yates and Joe Ewens, recent arrivals from Sale and Bedford respectively.

Those thirsting for a glimpse of some World Cup bloodstock will be able to watch Doddie Weir go through his paces at Kingsholm. The Scotland lock has played so little rugby since breaking an ankle during the Five Nations victory over Wales at Murrayfield last February - 15 minutes worth, to be precise - that Jim Telfer, his national coach, has agreed to release him to Newcastle for a one-off romp against Gloucester. As expected, Rob Andrew fills in for the absent Jonny Wilkinson at outside-half.

Northampton have named two international props, Garry Pagel and Matti Stewart, in their 22-man squad for today's home derby with Leicester, the reigning champions. In common with their great rivals, the Tigers are refusing to be too specific about their starting XV, revealing only that three newcomers - the South African prop Ken Fourie, the England World Students Cup flanker Benedict Kay and the former Saracens lock Danny Zaltzman, now on loan from Bedford - are in their travelling party.

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