Bath turn reclusive in fight for survival

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The Independent Online

Bath's relegation-threatened glitterati have been in camp for the last three days, and their mobile phones have been confiscated – not to prevent them booking flights to Tierra del Fuego, where they might live incognito until the embarrassment of the club's worst domestic campaign in 20 years is forgotten, but to minimise distraction as they "bond together" for the Premiership run-in. This afternoon, however, they will find themselves back in the public arena against an unforgiving Northampton side who could quite conceivably leave the West Countrymen at the bottom of the heap with five to play.

Bath's relegation-threatened glitterati have been in camp for the last three days, and their mobile phones have been confiscated – not to prevent them booking flights to Tierra del Fuego, where they might live incognito until the embarrassment of the club's worst domestic campaign in 20 years is forgotten, but to minimise distraction as they "bond together" for the Premiership run-in. This afternoon, however, they will find themselves back in the public arena against an unforgiving Northampton side who could quite conceivably leave the West Countrymen at the bottom of the heap with five to play.

Defeat today will expose the club owner and chief executive, Andrew Brownsword, to some tough questions, always assuming the disaffected locals actually succeed in locating the reclusive businessman. One such inquiry might concern the wisdom of dumping an enthusiastic Recreation Ground loyalist like Jon Callard and replacing him with an L-plate coach in Michael Foley at this precise stage in proceedings. Another little poser might be aimed at Foley himself. When backs are firmly against the wall, is it entirely sensible to drop your most experienced tight forward, Mark Regan, and your best finisher, Tom Voyce, from the starting XV? We shall learn the answer to that one this afternoon.

Northampton, one of the form sides in the land, head west with a dozen full internationals, a fledgling jack-of-all-trades virtuoso in James Brooks and a ruthless coach in Wayne Smith, who has not spared the rod since arriving in the Midlands before Christmas. The Saints have set their hearts on Heineken Cup qualification next term and believe a top four finish to be within their capabilities. They are unlikely to offer an even break to any suckers they happen to come across between now and season's end.

"I believe the supporters will see a team with a new sense of purpose," Foley, the former Wallaby hooker from Queensland, said yesterday. "They will see a team prepared to fight for each other. My own experience as a player taught me that a team lacking individual brilliance and outstanding talent can, if everybody pulls in the same direction, beat a side perceived to be better. This week, we have had a kind of mini pre-season, a fresh build-up to six matches that will decide whether Bath are playing Premiership rugby next season. We have worked hard on getting the players to rid themselves of the negativity they accumulated from their experiences in recent games."

Up the road at Gloucester, the Kingsholm regulars are celebrating the news that Phil Vickery, the England tight-head prop and club captain, has signed a four-year deal that will keep him under lock and key until he hits 30. Ludovic Mercier, the goal-kicking outside-half from Aurillac, has also agreed extended terms, so the feel-good factor may leave Saracens gasping for air in the second of today's highly significant matches. Sarries are every bit as vulnerable as Bath – their run-in has them visiting Sale, Northampton and Newcastle – so a result this afternoon would be welcome indeed. It would also be hugely surprising.

Leeds, very much the flies in the ointment, have a must-win home fixture with London Irish tomorrow. Sadly for the Yorkshiremen, their ultra-dependable line-out operator Tom Palmer broke a leg during England's A International with Wales last weekend, and while the Murphy boys, Chris and Phil, will bring some genuine physical presence to the second-row equation, there is no substitute for class.

Wasps, meanwhile, are at something approaching full strength for the visit of Leicester, who could secure a fourth consecutive title in the unlikely event of results going their way. Josh Lewsey, Shane Roiser, Stuart Abbott, Kenny Logan, Craig Dowd and a certain L B N Dallaglio Esq return to the Londoners' roster, while Martin Johnson reappears for the Tigers after suspension.

Harlequins, who may well share their Twickenham accommodation with Wasps next season, also have a current international back on the scene, having recalled Dan Luger to wing duty for tomorrow's trip to Bristol. Luger put two tries past Wales seven days ago; another brace would mean the world to his club in their fight against the unthinkable.

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