Rugby Union: Champions cannot afford a lapse in concentration

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WITH so much attention turned on the return of one Jeremy Guscott, Bath could be forgiven for losing sight of the fact that they still have to go out and win today's match at West Hartlepool, writes Steve Bale.

True, it is not their style to let their focus blur no matter what. But this week's concentration on one man - even if it does happen to be Guscott - runs counter to the collective ethos that has sustained this great club over so many triumphant years.

However timely the relaunch of the Rolls-Royce of centres, its haste is supposedly seen by some as unseemly and, whatever Brian Ashton, the coach, may say, a gentler run-out for Bath United might well have been a better alternative for the player if not for the team.

Ashton said: 'Once he declared himself fit for any sort of rugby, there was no point in having him play in a non-competitive match.' Another point in Ashton's support is that Ed Rayner, Phil de Glanville's erstwhile centre partner, had a dismal time in last week's narrow squeak against Wasps.

Things are so tight at the top of the First Division between Bath and Leicester - a familiar one-two - that even one slip-up could be enough to determine the destination of the Courage trophy. These are the only two 100 per cent sides and Bath lead by virtue of a points- difference superiority of just one.

Next Saturday brings the climactic meeting of the leaders at the Rec, and for now both will be happy to emerge from today's proceedings with their record intact, whatever the effect on points-difference. Even mighty Bath will consider West Hartlepool less of a soft touch than would have been the case before West had beaten Wasps.

Leicester will be without their injured captain and inspiration, Dean Richards, at Harlequins but as they spent the middle part of last season successfully overcoming his absence this is slightly less disappointing than is immediately obvious. They have an outstanding replacement in Chris Tarbuck.

Rather, the real problem lies in the non-availability of Neil Back (at a wedding) in tandem with that of Richards. Harlequins have not been among the Tigers' easier opponents down the years of league rugby and, Brian Moore having cracked the whip, Quins have actually begun to win a match or two.

Bristol, beaten only by Bath, have the England scrum-half Kyran Bracken fit to resume at Gloucester, who play an outside- half, Lee Osborne, on the wing. Sale do without their tactical genius, the former Wales stand-off Paul Turner, at Wasps, who welcome the return of the Hopley brothers. Northampton's attempts to get off the mark are becoming increasingly desperate; today's takes place at Orrell.

Finally, Andy Shorthose, the 6ft 8in Mansfield lock who played rugby league for Nottingham City under the mistaken impression that they were an amateur club and was consequently suspended by his own club, has been cleared by the Rugby Football Union to rejoin the union.

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