Rugby Union: Preston is key man for Bath

BATH HAVE spent much of the last two years working out diplomatic methods of offloading so-called southern hemisphere superstars - Henry Paul, Federico Mendez, German Llanes - who turned out to be anything but super. Those bad experiences were erased from the memory yesterday, however, as the European champions celebrated the arrival of Jon Preston, the experienced New Zealand half-back, on a two-year contract after weeks of tortuous negotiations.

Preston, a versatile sort who can perform with equal facility at scrum- half or stand-off, comes with the added bonus of a golden right boot. A kicker of proven Test quality - two summers ago in Pretoria he sank crucial penalties to earn the All Blacks their first ever series victory on South African soil - he is a potential one-man solution to most of Bath's well-documented personnel problems.

Now 31, Preston moved to Wellington in 1993 after five successful years at Canterbury. He was a regular choice for the Hurricanes in this season's Super 12 tournament and, more impressive still in British eyes, played a match-winning hand for New Zealand A against England in Hamilton in June. Much to the chagrin of the New Zealand hierarchy, he joins two other recent All Blacks, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce, in Europe.

Intriguingly, Bath recently recruited another scrum-half in the promising shape of Gareth Cooper, a 19-year-old from Pencoed whose speed and ball- handling panache have earned him a place in the Welsh sevens squad for the Commonwealth Games. With Andy Nicol, a seasoned Scottish international who led the West countrymen to the Heineken Cup last January, also on the books, the next few training sessions should be mighty interesting.

More interesting, certainly, than the latest manoeuvrings in British rugby's corridors of power. Having effectively spiked embryonic Rugby Football Union plans for a 20-team British League on Tuesday with their catalogue of pre-conditions, the Welsh turned turtle yesterday by urging a resumption of talks with their friends and rivals on the opposite side of the Severn Bridge.

"I am convinced that in tandem with our sponsors, broadcasters and clubs, we could establish this competition in time for the coming season," said Glanmor Griffiths, the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union. "But it has to be on the basis of a proper cross-border competition rather than just a few Welsh clubs being assimilated into the Allied Dunbar Premiership."

There was an instant declaration of support from the English clubs, who reasserted their willingness to re-embrace European rugby if the British League became a reality. "It is too big a prize to give up at the first hurdle," said Doug Ash, the chief executive of English First Division Rugby, the clubs' umbrella organisation. "Unions and clubs have talked constructively about accommodating the wishes of all concerned, and we believe it is still possible to find a solution."

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