Rugby Union: Saracens out to rock Bath at Rec

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The Independent Online
SARACENS MAY still be the Allied Dunbar Premiership's answer to rock and roll - big crowds, flash marketing, dancing girls and Kyran Bracken - but it is some time since they made sweet music together. True, England's knock-out champions have staged a partial recovery from the trauma of heavy defeats at Harlequins and Newcastle by winning three of their last four games, but somehow their sense of rhythm continues to elude them.

That reality has not been lost on Francois Pienaar, whose decision to add the first-team captaincy to his bulging portfolio of duties at Vicarage Road caused a serious stir before last weekend's encounter with London Irish.

"Even though we won that match, we performed a long way short of the level we regularly achieved last season," said the ambitious South African yesterday as he prepared for this afternoon's highly significant rumble with Bath at the Recreation Ground. "Bath might not be the force they were, temporarily at least, but if you win there you make an important statement of intent. Northampton did that last weekend and we must do something similar."

To that end, Pienaar has installed himself on the open-side flank in the absence of Richard Hill, whose masochistic penchant for thumb dislocations revealed itself again last Sunday. Troy Coker, equally hard but nowhere near as subtle as his Springbok partner, returns to the blind side, while Bracken resumes at scrum-half after a back problem that cost him his England place.

For all that, much of the interest will be focussed on a complete unknown: David Flatman, an 18-year-old Sarries loose-head who caused London Irish all sorts of grief six days ago. "He's a star," enthused Mark Evans, the Londoners' director of rugby. "Just watch him go."

Victory over a Bath line-up shorn of Phil de Glanville, Jon Preston, Mark Regan and Richard Webster (all injured) as well as Ieuan Evans, Steve Hatley and Ben Sturnham (all dropped) would go at least some of the way towards re-establishing the visitors' title credentials. Even so, Leicester, the hot favourites, will underline the overwhelming strength of their own candidacy if they grind out a result at Gloucester, for whom the former Wales captain Kingsley Jones makes a first Premiership start in the back row.

It will be no cakewalk, not only because three automatic backline choices - Joel Stransky, Will Greenwood and Nnamdi Ezulike - are crocked, but because Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach, reacted so violently to last weekend's shambolic capitulation at Sale.

"We played without pride or commitment and I've made it clear that everyone will be playing for their places when they go in against Leicester," Hill fumed. "We had a big heart-to-heart on Monday to assess what went wrong, but it's the last chance for these guys as far as I'm concerned. It's up to them to prove to themselves, to me and to the paying public that they deserve to be first choice." Pressure on, then.

Just as it will be at London Scottish, where Richmond need to stand up and be counted after four frustrating months of deceptive flattery. Their cause will hardly be helped by the absence of Ben Clarke, who fractured a cheekbone during last weekend's full-on scrap with Cardiff. With Scott Quinnell back home with Llanelli, the Londoners' back row has a brittle look to it. "Let's just say Ben's injury is a great disappointment to us," said John Kingston, their coach, as he weighed up his options yesterday.

Problems, problems.