Rugby Union: Perry waxes philosophical after axe as Bath turn to Callard's trusty boot

Matthew Perry is England rugby union's find of the season at full- back, but his international status clearly does not make him undroppable at club level. As Chris Hewett reports, Bath go into this weekend's Heineken Cup final with Jon Callard as their last line of defence - a decision that says more about Mike Catt's erratic goal-kicking than Perry's ability.

Those Recreation Ground regulars equipped with an ageist streak refer to Jon Callard as the Old Man and the Tee, which seems a touch unfair on a 31-year-old fitness fanatic who prides himself on an apparently inexhaustible appetite for the rigours of big-time rugby.

Callard may be a sporting greybeard but when the chips are down, as they will be against Brive in Bordeaux on Saturday, his goal-kicking prowess makes him a more likely match-winner than any of his club-mates, including Messrs Evans, Guscott and Catt.

Certainly, that is the way Andy Robinson and the rest of the Bath selection panel see it. Callard's presence in the No 16 shirt - for historic reasons, the West Countrymen refuse to recognise the number 13 - amounts to a marksman's kick in the teeth for Matt Perry, the brilliant 20-year-old England newcomer, who now takes a seat on the replacements' bench.

Not that Perry has been dropped because anyone considers Callard the better full-back; it is the essentially wayward nature of Mike Catt's right boot, confirmed once again during the Tetley's Bitter Cup defeat by Richmond last weekend, that has forced Bath to swallow hard and recall their venerable player-coach.

"This is not a nice thing to happen to a player of Matt's quality, but given the fact that we failed to kick our goals against Richmond and that Jon's accuracy has won us umpteen important games in the past, it's a decision that had to be made," Robinson said yesterday. "Especially as Brive tend to give away penalties."

If Perry's displays against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia marked him out as a Test rookie of unusual maturity, his reaction to the most bitter setback of his brief career reinforced that impression. "I was hoping Mike would kick his goals against Richmond. I knew my own chances would be improved by his doing so. As it turned out, he was rather erratic. I understand the selectors' reasons and I accept them; it's a professional game and you have to take these things on the chin. I'm just hoping that this doesn't affect my England prospects."

Bath have performed major surgery in the forwards, where Dave Hilton returns on the loose head for the profoundly out-of-sorts Federico Mendez and Martin Haag, a magnificent servant down the years, sneaks ahead of German Llanes and Brian Cusack to make his first start since late October. "The selection meeting took place in the local cemetery," joked Callard. "They've dug Hilts, Martin and myself out of the ground, so who knows? Stuart Barnes might be next."

The board members of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organising body of the Heineken Cup, made their latest attempt to save the tournament from premature burial by offering to reopen discussions with England's hard-line club owners. All 12 Premiership One sides have agreed to boycott the 1998-99 competition, citing dissatisfaction over fixture scheduling.

The ERC directors also insisted that the competition would go ahead next season, with or without England. They may be in for a shock, however; the French clubs are unhappy that French rugby federation has signed a participation agreement without their say so and to make matters worse, the patience of Heineken, the long-suffering sponsors, is understandably wearing thin.

Bath (v Brive Heineken Cup final, Bordeaux, Saturday): J Callard; I Evans, P De Glanville, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol (capt); B Hilton, M Regan, V Ubogu, N Redman, M Haag, N Thomas, R Webster, D Lyle. Replacements: R Pellow, F Mendez, J Mallett, R Butland, M Perry, E Peters, R Earnshaw.

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