Below-par Barbarians face Twickenham struggle

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The Independent Online

It is perhaps as well that the disciplinary officers of the Welsh Rugby Union are in no particular hurry to throw the book at Percy Montgomery following the former Springbok's recent and potentially catastrophic confrontation with a touch-judge, for his absence would have left the 2003 Barbarians weaker than a mug of camomile tea. Even with Montgomery in harness at full-back, the Baa-Baas will present a fairly underwhelming array of talent to the Twickenham crowd on Sunday, and will do well to finish within 30 points of an experimental but highly ambitious England combination led by Gloucester's Phil Vickery.

Only half a dozen current front-line internationals will start the game in the famous black-and-white hoops: the Frenchmen Thomas Castaignède and Christian Califano, the Irish outside-half David Humphreys, the Argentinian scrum-half Agustin Pichot, the Springbok lock A J Venter and the All Black loose forward Taine Randell, who captained New Zealand against England at Twickenham last November. The rest of the invitation team features a mix of retired Test players and unsung Super 12-ers from the southern hemisphere.

As always, the Baa-Baas have named an uncapped newcomer: Matt Sexton, the second-string Ulster hooker. But the vast majority of the 65,000-plus crowd at Twickenham will also struggle to recognise the likes of Aisea Tuilevu, Jerry Collins and Sam Harding. Increasingly, the Barbarians are struggling to field truly eye-catching teams for their showpiece matches, thanks to ever-increasing club commitments in the northern hemisphere and the considerable demands of a southern season virtually swamped with top-level provincial and international activity.

At least the Baa-Baas are strong on the bench, where two outstanding French front-rowers - Raphael Ibañez and Franck Tournaire - will be lurking, along with a pair of exceptional midfield talents in Felipe Contepomi and Daryl Gibson, plus the highly effective journeyman lock Ryan Strudwick, whose return to London Irish colours after injury proved a significant factor in the Exiles' Premiership survival.

The most intense activity on Sunday will be found in Reading, where Bath and Wasps meet in the final of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup - a game Bath must win if they are to put some sort of shine on a desperate campaign by securing a place in next season's Heineken Cup. Nathan Thomas, player of the year at the Recreation Ground but about to abscond to Cardiff, will miss what would have been his final game for the West Countrymen because of a back injury. Dan Lyle, free from Test duty with the United States, will start at No 8, with Andy Beattie and Gavin Thomas on the flanks.

Bath would like to concentrate on the job in hand, but outside pressures keep interfering. Gareth Cooper and Andy Williams, their Welsh scrum-halves, have reluctantly decided to return home in pursuit of further international recognition and club officials are fighting to hang on to the likes of Gareth Delve, one of the more prodigious forward talents of his generation.

Intriguingly, given the cup final opposition, Bath have confirmed the signing of Martyn Wood, a non-playing member of England's 1999 World Cup squad, who may well start at scrum-half for Wasps this weekend.

Wood's chances have been limited by Rob Howley's arrival from Cardiff but his high-class service is highly valued by Bath.

Meanwhile, Gloucester have secured the services of their first-choice locks, Adam Eustace and Mark Cornwell, for another two years following contract negotiations. Another Gloucester forward, Jake Boer, has won the Premiership player of the season award.