Rugby Union: Callard's form keeps Perry on the bench

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THE LAST time Bath played a Heineken Cup match, the best full- back in England had to watch his own thirtysomething club coach score 19 title-winning points on an unforgettable winter's afternoon in Bordeaux.

Tomorrow, Matt Perry will once again play second fiddle to Jon Callard when the West Countrymen renew their cross-channel rivalry with the French by playing Toulouse in the first round of this season's rejuvenated competition before a sell-out Recreation Ground crowd. Age before beauty, as they say.

Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, made no apologies for relegating Perry to the bench for a second successive European occasion. "Matt was named to play against Newcastle last weekend but pulled out with hamstring trouble," he explained. "Jon came in and did his usual outstanding job and I see no reason to change a winning side. With Phil de Glanville out injured, he brings some welcome experience to what is a very young line-up." Robinson confirmed Callard as captain for tomorrow's little tete-a-tete with the French champions.

If there is an undeniable logic to Robinson's decision, it has nothing to do with the fact that Callard spent the early part of this week lobbying for another autumnal taste of the continental high life. The assistant coach is very much in the groove with his goal-kicking - an important factor, given Mike Catt's notoriously wayward radar - and he remains the most bloody-minded competitor in a Bath dressing room that is slowly rediscovering the will to win after a fragile 18 months or so.

"The whole European thing means a great deal to me, but then, we're all gagging to play in this one," said the full-back. "Toulouse are a daunting proposition; they're a bigger club than Brive, who we beat to win the title in '98, because they have so much history behind them. But all French teams are serious threats; they are less methodical, less stereotyped, and less predictable than other sides. Still, we've come on leaps and bounds since we played Saracens at the start of the season. Boys have become men over the last few weeks and if we raise it a step further against Toulouse, we can win the game."

It is a measure of Robinson's success in developing fresh talent that only three veterans of Bordeaux will start tomorrow's game: Callard, Catt and Mark Regan, the former England hooker. There are two Heineken Cup rookies in the front row, where Clem Boyd and Chris Horsman have been handed the propping duties, and an unproven midfield axis featuring Shaun Berne and Mike Tindall. There are some reassuring grey whiskers in the back row, though, where Ben Clarke and the double Super-12 winner from Canterbury, Angus Gardiner, flank Ben Sturnham at No 8.

Grenoble, who begin their first Heineken Cup campaign in Edinburgh tonight, have signed Diego Albanese, the Argentinian World Cup wing who dumped Ireland out of the competition with a late quarter-final repechage try in Lens. Meanwhile, Northampton give a senor debut to Ian Vass, an 18- year-old scrum-half apprentice at the Saints' Academy, when they take on Neath at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow.