RUGBY UNION: Coaches forced to draw on reserves

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The Independent Online
RUGBY UNION

BY STEVE BALE

It comes to a pretty pass, not to mention run and kick, when the secret to the Courage Clubs' Championship is to know when to field your weakest side, but this is precisely the exercise being conducted by Bath and Leicester at the top and Harlequins and Northampton at the bottom of the First Division.

Things are so geared to England and the World Cup that the credibility of the league has, unavoidably, been diminished. No one doubts that Bath and Leicester are worthy title contenders nor, given their results, that Quins and Northampton are worthy of their unexpectedly lowly status. But the notion that they must be emasculated when fighting their contrasting fights is profoundly unsatisfactory.

Members of the England World Cup squad are restricted to two of the four fixtures which conclude the league during April. Most of them are gladly taking today off, in Bath's and Leicester's cases so that they can face each other in next Saturday's decider.

It would be poignant if Jack Rowell's proper insistence that his players stick to the bargain they struck long ago should have a deleterious effect on the club he coached to so many titles. "The trick is to estimate accurately which matches you believe your reserves are good enough to win and in which fixtures will you need to be at full strength," the England manager's successor as Bath coach, Brian Ashton, said yesterday.

West Hartlepool, today's visitors, ran Bath close last October and will be nothing if not desperate. Even so, five of Bath's seven England men are resting - in addition to their two Scots, who are banned from playing altogether.

Philip de Glanville and Victor Ubogu are the lucky ones, though Ashton's comments could be mischievously interpreted as demoting Ubogu to reserve status after the contention caused by his late departure for Hong Kong when Bath wanted him for the game at Wasps which they subsequently lost.

Leicester and Harlequins, last weekend's beaten cup semi-finalists, are similarly reduced for their meeting at Welford Road, where the Tigers include only Tony Underwood of their England half-dozen and Quins none of their three.

"We are at home and gambled that Harlequins would also rest their England players - which they have," Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, said. "We would therefore hope to beat them and then field our best team against Bath."

There is an element of presumption in the approach of both the leaders but they will probably get away with it before going on to square up to each other. They are separated only by points-difference, Leicester's advantage being 16.

In the nether reaches, whence only one will go down, Northampton are three points behind Quins and West, making victory over Orrell today so absolutely imperative that unlike others elsewhere, Tim Rodber and Martin Bayfield, have no alternative but to play.

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