Rugby Union: Eves' realism concedes Bath are champion neighbours: Barrie Fairall previews the weekend's programme

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The Independent Online
IT MAY be very neighbourly, but it comes to something when Bristol are prepared to concede that not only are Bath the best in the west but within a match of securing the league title for a fourth successive season and a fifth time out of seven since the competition was introduced. Derek Eves, Bristol's captain, is nothing but a realist however much it may hurt.

Bath visit Welford Road this afternoon and Eves said: 'If they beat Leicester, then I think they are home and dry even with so much of the league season to come. Orrell could well beat Harlequins at home and if those matches go that way then Bath will have a six-point lead. It would be all over and done with.'

A rather depressing thought with only just over a third of the new home and away programme completed. So, much hangs on what the Tigers, beaten by the hard-tackling Quins last weekend, can come up with against the champions. Stuart Barnes, Bath's effervescent outside- half, has his own theme. 'We do have a surprisingly large cushion, so it wouldn't be a disaster for us to lose,' he said.

Here is the rub, though. 'But Bath obviously don't look at things that way.' The rest just have to hope and pray. 'Psychologically, all the other chasing teams will be looking on this as the game where they'll be hoping that the home side can down us.' It is the best that Barnes can offer them.

Leicester lost their way so badly against Quins that no one is banking on an upset, even if Bath are travelling light without Jeremy Guscott and Ben Clarke. The Tigers just trust that Rory Underwood

attains a pass mark on his second outing in the centre, a crash course necessitated by Ian Bates's knee

injury, and that Aadel Kardooni's return at scrum-half at least gives them a chance to get the ball moving.

While Bath may be in the happy position of being able to absorb a loss, a single win is all Gloucester and Newcastle Gosforth ask for to get something of a toe-hold on the ladder. Both are at home, bottom- placed Newcastle desperate to secure the points against London Irish and Gloucester fingers firmly crossed for the visit of Northampton.

In Wales, there is some sorting out taking place among the top four in the Heineken League. Llanelli, champions and championship leaders on points difference, head for the third-placed Neath, who hope to break the Scarlets' eight-match winning sequence between the two in League and Cup. Swansea, lying second, lie in wait for Cardiff.

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