Rugby Union: Undaunted Wasps are ready to buzz in the Bath bearpit: Steve Bale weighs up a meeting of giants at the Rec

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SOMEONE has to do it - and in this afternoon's case it is the unfortunate Wasps. The pride of Brent (honestly) play at Bath in the Pilkington Cup fourth round, the one where English club rugby's heavy artillery finally begins to fire. Every other cup contender is highly delighted.

'The rest of the First Division are chuckling because one of us is about to go out,' Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, said. 'This draw is hardly convenient for either of us but Bath aren't the only ones you wouldn't want to visit. There are three or four others who would fall into that category as well.'

At least Wasps, of all sides, are undaunted by the Recreation Ground, which may stand amid all that Georgian splendour but is a bearpit of a place on cup day. Bath have lost only one tie there since 1982 (to Leicester in 1990) and only two league fixtures since Courage was first summoned up in 1987.

But as one of those was to Wasps, the 16-15 defeat of 1991, as Wasps were leading last season until they were wrecked at the Rec by Fran Clough's dismissal, and as Wasps have already gone within an ace of beating Bath at Sudbury this season, today's game is anything but the usual foregone conclusion.

'We have never found the atmosphere or the crowd at Bath has worried us,' Ryan said. 'Quite the opposite, in fact: a packed ground seething with emotion at a frantic cup tie acts as a stimulus. Before the draw, Bath away would have been something we wanted to avoid but once it was done it focused our minds superbly.'

With a game in hand, Wasps trail Bath by two places and five points in the First Division - in which Bath beat Wasps only on points difference last season - and acknowledge that they have not been producing the intended style. Hence the reliance on Rob Andrew, who has been outstanding since England's win over New Zealand.

'We've struggled to develop the rugby we want but to some extent that's down to outside influences: we've struggled with referees' interpretations and sides who have tried to stop us playing,' Ryan, himself three times an England back-row forward, said. Why, he is beginning to sound like Sean Fitzpatrick, the captain of New Zealand, but then the Wasps do wear all black.

Ryan also blames the unprecedented intensity of the season's first half - which is still not over, for heaven's sake. 'Everyone is suffering, not just us,' Ryan added. 'It's been a long, long four months to Christmas. With all those league fixtures and the All Blacks tour as well, it has certainly taken its toll.

'The thought of the next two weeks away from it is bliss.' In other words, the divisional decider at Twickenham between London and the South-West on new year's bank holiday can go hang. As it happens, Ryan - by prior arrangement, of course - will be working.

Even more blissful, though, would be to beat Bath, but Ryan is uncomfortably aware that the England's champion team are never more dangerous than when they seem as vulnerable as they do now. Stuart Barnes intends to play for Bath despite groin and knee injuries, the direct comparison with Andrew an additional incentive he scarcely requires. Bath went out at Waterloo at this stage last season while Barnes was playing for the Barbarians against Australia.

Bath have won 37 of their 40 cup ties since their successes started in 1984. Their seven cup-final wins have been broken only by Harlequins, the 1988 and '91 winners, who meet Basingstoke at The Stoop, and Leicester, who beat Quins in last season's final and are at Blackheath today. Just the type of ties Bath and Wasps would have preferred.

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