Ashton shuffles his backs in search for domestic recovery

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The Independent Online

Once again, the sense of urgency is to be found downstairs, where Bath, with half a dozen players under Six Nations consideration, are slowly reaching the conclusion that they are holding the smelly end of the stick. Their game with Wasps at the Recreation Ground is immeasurably more important to them than the trip to the East Midlands is to Sale, for they could very easily find themselves bottom of the pile come teatime.

Somewhere along the line, Bath have badly messed up in the Premiership. Maybe it has been a case of all the way along the line. They have won only three of their 12 League matches, and their try-scoring record on home soil is very nearly as hilarious as a Liberal Democrat leadership campaign. In fact, the Lib Dems seem to score more regularly. Given that the West Countrymen are about to lose the bulk of their tight-forward unit to international duty, they could be in serious strife by the time they play Leicester on the far side of the Six Nations.

Worryingly from their perspective, they meet a Wasps team in combative mood. Having won the Heineken Cup as recently as two years ago, the Londoners are feeling the lack of a place in this season's European knock-out phase. The craving will be satisfied only by another domestic title and to that end, they have identified today's game as a prime opportunity to move to the top of the table and hack a path through the jungle from there.

"This is a very important game for both sides," said Ian McGeechan, Wasps' director of rugby. "A game against Bath has always been one of the biggest in the Premiership - our home match against them at the Causeway Stadium earlier this season was a tough one - and added to that, they must have taken a lot from their recent success in reaching the knock-out phase of the Heineken, which we failed to do. Also, it's good to see Brian Ashton back with them, and we know that in facing a team of his we will be asked questions, both tactically and technically."

Ashton, who rejoined Bath at the start of the month after a decade's coaching at international and national academy levels, has enough questions of his own to answer, without firing them at other people. His back division finished a distant second to the Leinster version last weekend - the Dubliners had the services of a chap by the name of O'Driscoll, but there was more to their supremacy than that - and he has lost his most creative player, Olly Barkley, to a nasty thumb injury.

As a result the back line has undergone invasive surgery, with Chris Malone recalled at outside-half, David Bory restored to the wing, Joe Maddock materialising at full-back and the impressive young Samoan Eliota Fuimaono making his debut in midfield.

Wasps' full-back Mark van Gisbergen misses out on a place in the 22, McGeechan saying: "Mark is still recovering from a slight ankle knock. We want to make sure he is fully fit in case England require him next weekend."

Lewis Moody, a big favourite of the England coach Andy Robinson despite his occasional descents into the crimson mist, starts in the Leicester back row against Sale - his first appearance since allowing himself to become too angry by half during the Test with the Samoans at Twickenham last November and getting sent off. If he avoids injury and stays on the right side of the referee, a Six Nations place awaits.

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