Rugby Union: Challenge to claim Bath's kingdom

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The Independent Online
BATH are scornfully used to the presumption of parvenu pretenders to their perennial crown. So there is nothing new in suggesting that, if the first couple of weeks of the Courage Championship mean anything, not only Leicester but also Wasps will mount a credible challenge.

After all of two matches these are the only three unbeaten First Division sides and the chances are good that they will remain so when they go into a round-robin (Wasps v Leicester followed by Bath v Wasps) against each other over the next two Saturdays.

If ever there was a way to ensure the champions stay top it is to imagine that someone else just might topple them. The Bristol captain Derek Eves, for instance, was ill-advised to shoot his mouth off before playing Bath and certainly no one from either Leicester or Wasps is making the same mistake.

Bath know every psychological trick in the book and even without John Hall, Jonathan Callard and Graham Dawe, they are hardly less formidable. Orrell, today's visitors to the Rec, twice gave Bath trouble last season, but that was before their forward power had been emasculated.

Bath try Gareth Adams, at one time an England Under-21 flanker, in his new position at hooker, give another Yorkshireman, the Emerging England wing Jon Sleightholme - late of Wakefield - his debut and move Audley Lumsden to full-back. No problem in the back row either, not when you can call on Andy Robinson instead of the injured Hall.

'It's a pretty young side - unusual for Bath, whose foundation has been the older, experienced players who have played through numerous cups and leagues,' said the acting captain, Phil de Glanville, who is uncomfortably aware that if Jeremy Guscott succeeds in his projected comeback, his England centre place would then be under threat from his team-mate.

Wasps, without Rob Andrew, take their newly liberated brand of rugby to West Hartlepool, where they should be in no difficulty - assuming they are not carried away. 'I'm very enthusiastic about the way we're playing, but I'm trying not to get too excited because we could lose our way very quickly,' Rob Smith, their coach, said.

De Glanville noted that, in winning their two games, Bath had 'hit true form' for no more than 20 minutes (against Northampton); Leicester have not managed even that. Perhaps the visit of Gloucester will give them the opportunity, though the Elver Eaters' fickleness - first hammered by Wasps and then hammering West Hartlepool - makes this game a pleasantly unpredictable prospect.

Bristol may discover a little more about how good they are at home to Harlequins, who at the same time may discover if they are really as awful as their stinging defeat by Wasps suggested. In the North-west, Sale and Northampton are desperate to get off the mark. In Wales, Cardiff, the Heineken League favourites, meet Swansea, the champions, at the Arms Park, while Llanelli begin life after Scott Quinnell against Pontypool at Stradey.