Rugby Union: Coaches face a day of destiny at Kingsholm

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THE DREADED three Ms - meaningless, mid-table and mediocrity - were always likely to hover over too large a proportion of this season's Allied Dunbar Premiership, simply because the professional clubs over- egged their own souffle by insisting on a top-heavy top flight of 14 teams. Neither Gloucester nor Bath see it quite that way, however. Mid-table they may be, mediocre they most certainly are, but it is hard to recall a more meaningful West Country derby than this afternoon's tribal set- to at Kingsholm.

In short, it is win or bust for both sides; or, to be absolutely accurate, both coaches. Richard Hill and Andy Robinson, two outstanding England internationals who spent their entire club careers manacled together in common cause, are once again occupying the same storm-tossed boat, even though Hill left Bath for Gloucester three long years ago. Betrayed by under-performing players, lambasted by frustrated supporters and crippled by misfortune, the former brothers in arms are now being asked some hard questions by their respective proprietors.

The potential ramifications of failing to come up with the right answers between 2pm and 3.30 today are too painful to contemplate. If Robinson appears the less secure of the two - he has just presided over five successive Premiership defeats, a 50-point shafting at Swansea and the abrupt departure of his closest boardroom ally, Tony Swift - Hill is not exactly in the pink. A particularly vocal section of the Kingsholm congregation holds him personally responsible for driving Phil Greening, the England hooker, out of Gloucester and there is much talk of an uneasy relationship with both Dave Sims, the club captain, and Tom Walkinshaw, the club owner. Defeat for either side will leave the coach dangerously exposed.

Andrew Brownsword, Bath's multi-millionaire backer, is known to be contemplating the appointment of a director of rugby to fill the yawning chasm that, with Swift gone, now exists between the dressing room and the boardroom. The senior players will defend the popular Robinson with every last breath in their body, but they need to start punching their weight if they are to see him through the most precarious few weeks of his professional career.

For the moment, Robinson insists that the solution to his side's problems must come from within. It is the time-honoured Bath way - slam the door shut on the outsiders, lay the issues bare and come out fighting - and to that end, Robinson has picked the meanest, nastiest band of slit-eyed gun-slingers at his disposal. Mark Regan returns at hooker, Richard Webster and Eric Peters play in tandem on the flanks and, most importantly, Jon Callard relieves Matt Perry of the No 15 shirt, not just because of his goal-kicking but because his ability to mix it with the enemy.

"It had to be done," the coach explained yesterday. "It's no reflection on Matt, who is a fabulous player, and it is nothing against Mike Catt's kicking, either. Mike remains a very good kicker and we won seven of our first eight league games with him performing that role. But we have to go back to Jon for this one and the whole squad understand the reasons why. He is our best kicker and we need someone on the pitch saying: `This is the way we're going to do it.'"

Gloucester, meanwhile, restore Nathan Carter to the back-row equation in place of Kingsley Jones, the former Wales captain who ruptured an Achilles tendon at Wasps last Sunday. Hill prefers Mark Mapletoft to Simon Mannix at stand-off and Scott Benton to Ian Sanders at scrum-half, while Neil McCarthy gets a start at hooker ahead of Chris Fortey. Philippe Saint- Andre, the inspirational Frenchman, has recovered from a thigh strain and plays on the left wing.

Saint-Andre gives the Cherry and Whites so many attacking options that they go into a blind panic every time he is late for training; hence their determination to expand their pool of wings by signing Tom Beim, one of the very few successful England tourists in New Zealand last summer, from Sale.

Beim, a Kingsholm old boy who moved north in 1996, is expected to agree a two-year deal over the weekend.

There are no such insecurities at Northampton these days; with world- class talents like Pat Lam and Freddie Mendez playing at something approaching Test pitch, the Saints are good value for their elevated position in the Premiership table. A year ago, when the Midlanders were still incapacitated by their own inconsistency, few would have backed them to win at Sale. They should do so this afternoon, though. "We cannot afford to fail," said Matt Dawson, their England scrum-half, with the confidence of a man who knows his side are on a hot streak.

"Despite having batches of Test players, we have never finished higher than fourth in the league," added Dawson, whose occasional goal-kicking accounted for Gary Teichmann's record-chasing Springboks at Twickenham last month.

"Now we have the chance of going joint top with Leicester, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that we have won nothing. Sale stand in our way this weekend, just as they do in the cup next Saturday. If we fail in either game, that `under-achievers' tag will continue to stick to us."