Rugby Union: Ojomoh targets his rivals

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The Independent Online
INTENSE COMPETITION for international places has made the back row the most congested stretch of rugby territory in England, but Steve Ojomoh clearly intends to free things up a little. Gloucester's kingpin loose forward has already given Ben Clarke, one of his in-form rivals, a free ticket to the casualty department this season and he is hoping to add the name of Bath's Ben Sturnham to his tally when the great West Country rivals meet in a derby of epic potential at the Recreation Ground this afternoon.

Pieced together by the same firm of architects responsible for Mount Kilimanjaro, the Nigerian-born Ojomoh is enjoying a second bite at the cherry - or, in his case, the cherry and white. He could and should have won 30-plus England caps during a seven-year spell at Bath but a combination of indolence - "Play properly or get injured," he was once told by Jack Rowell, who coached him at both club and national level - and injury undermined his lavish physical and athletic gifts. His move up the M5 revitalised him, however, and he is firmly in the frame for honours once again.

If he continues to tackle his peers off the park, he will be the only candidate left standing by the time England play their World Cup qualifiers with the Netherlands and Italy in November; certainly, he did Clarke, an old club-mate at the Rec, no favours at all during Gloucester's unexpected victory at Richmond a fortnight ago. "Other sides put people in the holes and it's my job to bury them," explains Ojomoh cheerfully.

Ojomoh moves from No 8 to blind-side flanker today, which could well bring him into Sturnham's theatre of operations. Simon Devereux, no shrinking violet himself, keeps his place in the middle of the back row with Nathan Carter in the breakaway role. Rob Fidler's return to engine room duties gives the Gloucester pack some real edge - only Phil Vickery, the England tight head, is missing - and the form of Simon Mannix in midfield gives the visitors a more assured air outside.

"We've caught some hidings at Bath over the last couple of seasons, but we're travelling in a different frame of mind this time," agreed Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach. "We're unbeaten, for one thing, and while our win at Richmond didn't automatically erase an away record that remains pretty abject, it reminded us that it's possible to enjoy our rugby away from Kingsholm. Bath are still a top club and when they blow hot, they also blow people away. But they are no longer out there on their own, other teams are up there with them and I'd like to be able to include us in that."

Paul Turner, who left troubled Bedford by mutual consent earlier in the week, should enjoy a comfortable start to his new role as Saracens' back- line coach at London Scottish. "We've been on the look-out for a quality backs specialist for some time and Paul's abilities speak for themselves," said Mark Evans, the cup holders' director of rugby. There is still no sign of Francois Pienaar's return to action but with Kyran Bracken forging a breathtaking half-back partnership with Alain Penaud, Sarries look good for 30 points at least.

So too do Leicester, who visit a Bedford club in the fell clutches of managerial and financial crisis. Geoff Cooke, the chief executive saddled with the coaching in Turner's absence, predicted a gate of less than 4,000 at Goldington Road - a morale-sapping prospect, given the Tigers' status as the best supported side in British rugby. "We're applying to have the fixture taken off the all-ticket list so we can sell on the day," said Cooke. Privately, he probably wishes the game was off altogether.