Rugby Union: Regan set to climb pecking order

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The Independent Online
IF MARK REGAN found it unusually difficult to get to sleep last Monday night, it was not simply because his brand new daughter was giving her week-old lungs a full aerobic work-out. Bath's former inter- national hooker had just experienced his worst televisual nightmare: the sight of Richard Cockerill, the man he considers his most punchable rival, revelling in the chat show lifestyle as the nation basked in the delicious afterglow of victory over the Springboks.

As a symbol of the transitory nature of sporting fortune, it could hardly have been more cruel. Only 18 months ago, Regan was lording it as a Test Lion in South Africa while Cockerill was slumming his way around the one-horse rugby towns of Argentina with an understrength posse of red rose remnants. Then came the sudden fall as Clive Woodward succeeded Jack Rowell as national coach and immediately left the undisputed king of England's front-row castle dangling from the drawbridge.

Indeed, Regan has spent the last 10 months struggling to find a way out of the moat. Dropped after England's powder-puff scrummaging display in Paris last February and omitted from the summer tour of the southern hemisphere even though Woodward had scarcely enough fit players to fill the plane, the burly Bristolian has also found himself out of favour at club level. At best, he is fourth in the England pecking order behind Cockerill, Phil Greening and his young Bath clubmate, Andy Long.

All of which makes today's tussle with second-placed Northampton at the Recreation Ground his single most important 80 minutes of rugby since July of last year, when he blew away the Afrikaners of Northern Free State in Welkom to earn himself a starting place in the final Springbok-Lions Test at Ellis Park. Woodward intends to watch the game live and, to make matters more interesting still, Regan will go bristle to bristle with Federico Mendez, the Puma hooker who quit Bath in high dudgeon at the end of last season.

"Sound bloke, Mendez; we got along very well during our time together at the Rec," said Regan this week. "But it's different now, isn't it? It's my job to go out there and kick some ass, not smile at old clubmates. I've had some big disappointments in recent months and, to be honest, I haven't helped myself by playing injured. I strained my ankle ligaments in the first Premiership game of the season, came back too quickly and ended up popping a rib cartilage - the sort of daft thing you pick up when you're not in peak condition. I'm fit now, though, and I'm hungry, too."

Not that the Northampton pack is short of appetite these days. The Midlanders, level on points with Premiership leaders Leicester, consider themselves fully equipped to register a first win at Bath in more than two decades and with Mendez, Garry Pagel, Tim Rodber and Pat Lam in prime shape, they may even start as marginal favourites. Certainly, Mendez is on the warpath. "I had a bad experience with Bath; I was not very happy there," said the Argentian yesterday. "And they are now standing in our way. It will be a tight game, but we will win." So there.

Leicester, meanwhile, will confidently expect to survive the muscular threat of Newcastle, the reigning champions, even though they go in without the reassuring presence of Joel Stransky at outside-half. The return from international duty of Cockerill, Graham Rowntree, Darren Garforth, Martin Johnson, Martin Corry and Neil Back will add just a touch of seasoned know-how to the Tigers' forward effort, and with the Geordies now accepting that the neck injury suffered by Dean Ryan, their big bad wolf of a captain, is likely to sideline him for the rest of the season, they are hardly in pole position to turn over a side who look all but unbeatable at Welford Road.

Bedford, contrastingly, are eminently beatable anywhere, but their new head cook and bottlewasher can at least anticipate two valuable Premiership points today. Rudi Straeuli, the former Springbok No 8 asked to fill the breach created by Geoff Cooke's abrupt departure, welcomes the relegation- haunted whipping boys from West Hartlepool to Goldington Road and, although he describes his new job as the most difficult of his career, he knows it will not get any easier than this.

Yet if West Hartlepool face another uphill challenge, it is as nothing compared to the tests awaiting Pontypridd and Llanelli this afternoon. Their respective European Cup quarter-final visits to Stade Francais and Perpignan have a distinct "thank you and good night" air about them; neither have ever won a competitive match on the far side of the Channel and it is unrealistic to expect them to start now.

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