Borthwick set to be stripped of captaincy

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The Independent Online

Bath have never taken kindly to high-profile players leaving of their own accord. When Simon Halliday threw in his lot with Harlequins and quickly found himself losing to his old colleagues in a cup final at Twickenham, he attempted to smoke the pipe of peace with Stuart Barnes. "If someone had to drop a goal to beat me in a cup final," he told the outside-half, "I'm glad it was you." To which Barnes responded, sulphurically: "Simon, if I had to drop a goal to beat someone in a cup final, I'm glad it was you."

Halliday is now back at Bath, sitting on the board as a non-executive director and playing an energetic role in driving the West Country club out of its pit of despond and back towards the sunlit uplands. He is not best pleased at the decision of the captain, Steve Borthwick, to join Saracens at the end of the season – "I'm feeling sore because we opened up to him about the various plans we have in place, put a decent contract in front of him, but then didn't have the opportunity to discuss any issue he might have had," the former centre said – and there is now a serious debate among the hierarchy as to whether they should strip the England lock of his leadership duties.

The fact that Borthwick has been relegated to the bench for this weekend's European Challenge Cup meeting with Auch at the Recreation Ground is not an indicator that he has already lost the captaincy. It is a soft match for Bath, who have already qualified for the last eight, and Borthwick is far from the only senior player left out of the starting line-up. However, Bath play an important game against – wouldn't you just know it? – Saracens on Sunday week, and as things stand, there is no guarantee he will lead the team at Vicarage Road.

Supporters have been split by his impending departure. Some believe he should no longer play for the team, let alone captain it; others say the management should get the best from England's premier lineout specialist while they can. If the decision makers have any sense, they will take the latter approach. Borthwick may not be the one-club man he appeared, but no one in the grand history of the Bath club gave more of himself to the cause over a 10-year period. He has been the conscience of the team for longer than anyone cares to remember, and their finest line-out exponent of the post-war era. He deserves better than to be marginalised.

Besides, there are more pressing concerns than making an example of so honest a professional. Northampton, set fair for a return to the Premiership next season and starting to wave a bulging wallet in the direction of international-class players, are keen to sign Matt Stevens, the best tight-head prop in Europe. Meanwhile, Olly Barkley's future at the Rec continues to to be the subject of feverish speculation.

Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, is uncomfortably aware of the interest in both individuals, but does not believe they will leave simply as a consequence of Borthwick's decision. "I would hope they'll be stronger than that," he said. "My opinion is that they'll make up their own minds and be their own men."

Gloucester, who attract more players than they lose these days, have secured the services of the uniquely dynamic Fijian flanker Akapusi Qera for another two years. "It's pretty obvious that he's a special talent," said Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Kingsholm.

Meanwhile, Saracens, who play a big Heineken Cup game at Glasgow tonight, have retained their ball-carrying No 8 Ben Skirving for a similar period.

In France, the ambitious Bayonne club are reported to have offered Bryan Habana, the World Cup-winning Springbok wing who finished last year's tournament as the leading try-scorer, a four-year deal.