Bristol, promoted from the gentle pond of National Division One to the deep ocean waters of next season's Premiership at the expense of a shipwrecked Harlequins, will probably need more than a notoriously aggressive French centre to keep them afloat. Still, Richard Dourthe is nobody's fool. A goal-kicker of international quality and a defensive specialist, he is expected to join the former England hooker Mark Regan on the West Country club's roster any day and will play an influential role when the meaningful business begins in September.
The 30-year-old midfielder met with Bristol officials last week to discuss a move from Castres, who have performed strongly in the French Championship this season. Assuming he agrees terms - discussions are said to be at an advanced stage - he will find himself competing for a first team place with the England Under-21 centre Andy Reay, who has left Quins for a two-year contract at the Memorial Ground.
Another noted French marksman, the Pau outside-half Ludovic Mercier, will return to Kingsholm this summer for a second stint with Gloucester. Mercier was a big hit with the locals when he accumulated more than 500 points in all competitions during the 2001-02 campaign, but the possibility of a place in the 2003 World Cup squad lured him back across the Channel. Things did not work out - the France coach, Bernard Laporte, showed no sign of picking him despite his heavy scoring - and with Gloucester in need of a dependable goal-kicker, he was an obvious target.
The 33-year-old Northampton prop Tom Smith has retired from international activity after winning 61 caps for Scotland and holding down the loose-head berth on each of the last two British and Irish Lions tours to the southern hemisphere. At the peak of his powers, Smith was one of the most effective front-row practitioners in Test rugby, beating Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard to the Lions' No 1 shirt in South Africa in 1997 and playing a full hand of matches against the Wallabies in 2001.
By coincidence, Scotland's caretaker coach, Frank Hadden, yesterday named his squad for matches with the Barbarians in Aberdeen and Romania in Bucharest. Marcus di Rollo, the Edinburgh centre pointedly ignored by the recently sacked Matt Williams, has been recalled to a 30-man squad featuring two players, the full-back Chris Paterson and the flanker Jason White, who might have expected to make the Lions' cut for New Zealand. Among the newcomers is the highly-rated Edinburgh prop Euan Murray, who would have played in this year's Six Nations had he not been caught stamping during a Celtic League game.
Talking of the Barbarians, half-a-dozen Springboks have signed up for this month's matches with Scotland and England. Brent Russell and Trevor Halstead will be among the backs, with Cobus Visagie, Selborne Boome, A J Venter and Corne Krige up front.