Rugby Union: Home rule suits Bath: Steve Bale on the return today of league action after a seven-week break

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The Independent Online
THE COURAGE Championship is less a marathon than an intermittent series of sprints, which is why from the moment it takes its midwinter break to accommodate the Divisional Championship and Christmas it loses not only its shape but also its impetus.

This afternoon's round of fixtures are the first for seven weeks and, with the Pilkington Cup intruding between England's internationals against France and Wales, the next will not be for five weeks. Then there is another gap of four weeks before the potentially climactic Bath v Wasps.

Next season, with the divisionals moved to October and 18 rather than 12 league fixtures, will feel more like the long-distance run that one presumes leagues are supposed to be, however reluctant England's leading players may be to have yet more competitive rugby imposed on them.

This is not to denigrate present and past championships but merely to suggest that Courage would eventually have reached a sticking-point if it had been forever restricted to its dozen games. Home and away is as popular with club treasurers as its namesake is with tele-viewers and it will bring the benefit of fairness.

The contrast with this season is obvious. Wasps' closest pursuers in National League One are Bath, two points behind but with a clear superiority in points difference. It is already obvious that the meeting of the two will be critical.

But as they play each other only once in a league season, the home team - in this instance Bath - have an unfair advantage, even if Wasps did win two years ago at the Recreation Ground (where only Waterloo in the league's disjointed inaugural season have done the same).

So there is less rugby to be played before the big game on 13 March than might be imagined. Even so, Wasps are wary of thinking further ahead than today's visit to Saracens. 'It's very premature to start talking about any title clash with Bath,' Dean Ryan, the leaders' captain, said. 'We have some tough fixtures coming up, and Saracens is certainly one.'

Ryan has been a paragon of selflessness in subordinating personal ambition in Wasps' cause. Being by preference a No 8 and having played three times for England at blind-side flanker (most recently against Canada in October), he has been frustrated at playing all season at lock.

Now he has been relegated to the bench for the England A team. 'I've been labelled with being able to play anywhere and that hasn't helped me. Once the second-row situation in the club has been settled I'm very keen to play No 8.'

In fact Wasps do have home and away fixtures against Saracens, the return being the cup fourth-round tie at Sudbury in a fortnight. Two of the chasers, Northampton and Leicester, meet at Franklin's Gardens today. Ian Hunter, the Northampton full- back, yesterday withdrew to avoid exacerbating a hamstring injury a week before playing on the England wing against France.

Bath, out of the cup and with only the league to aspire to, 'entertain' Rugby. Rugby and kindred places are where the real anxiety of the resumed league is felt - in the four-club relegation zone. This is the fault of the clubs themselves, keen as they were for extra league games, and having won the right to home and away they have the consequence: 10-club rather than 13-club divisions.

In the Second Division it gets worse, with seven going down and therefore hardly anyone yet assured of safety - and hardly anyone still in with a realistic chance of the solitary promotion place now occupied by the only 100 per centers, Newcastle Gosforth.

Next season's Second is evidently going to be inordinately strong. In the Third, the obligatory one goes up but nine down. Redruth are among the promotion candidates but you cannot blame their captain, Kevin Thomas, when he says: 'We would regard simply staying in the Third Division as promotion.'