Connolly to guard Bath against the 'hibernation' factor

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The Independent Online

Two wins clear of the domestic field and contemplating the happy prospect of a run-in heavily loaded in their favour, Bath are cast-iron certainties to make the cut for next season's Heineken Cup - Leeds qualified for this season's tournament with 56 points; the West Countrymen have already accumulated 47 with 10 games left to play - and are short-priced favourites to reach the Zurich Premiership final on the last Saturday in May. Should they make that Twickenham date as table-toppers, they have no intention of being taken for mugs, as Gloucester were last term.

Gloucester finished 15 points ahead of the rest, but spent three weeks sitting on their backsides while others were involved in European and Premiership play-off activity and paid for their ill-timed period of hibernation by losing 39-3 to Wasps in the climactic game of the campaign. In theory, Bath could face a similar break between matches. In practice, they will beg, borrow or steal an extra fixture from somewhere as a precaution against humiliation.

"I've been involved in a few grand final situations - in Australia, they are very much a part of the rugby culture," said John Connolly, the former Queensland coach who took over at the Recreation Ground last summer.

"I know from my own experience that a team, irrespective of how well they have played through the season, are vulnerable if they suffer from a lack of continuity. We are by no means assuming a place in the final, but we have thought about the situation and we have some idea of how we will address it should it arise." The likelihood is that Connolly will take his players on a week-long training camp, and then play a game against serious opposition from Wales or France.

By then, Matt Stevens may be firmly established in Bath's first-choice front row. But there is no immediate prospect of the dynamic South African-born prop forcing a starting place, despite his striking contribution in last weekend's non-cap match between an England XV and the New Zealand Barbarians. "We're using Matt off the bench and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future," Connolly said. "He still has a lot of work to do on his conditioning. He recognises that reality, and accepts it."

Connolly has made several changes to his side for tomorrow's attractive match at Saracens. Simon Danielli, Mike Tindall, Martyn Wood and Danny Grewcock return to the run-on team at wing, centre, scrum-half and lock respectively, with Kevin Maggs, a strong midfield performer for Ireland at the World Cup, among those dropping to the bench. This will not be to his liking, and may fuel more speculation of a possible move to London Irish at the end of the campaign.

Leicester, meanwhile, have re-signed Andy Goode, who played at outside-half in the Tigers' famous Heineken Cup final victory over Stade Français in Paris in 2001.

Goode, who severed his links with Saracens in abrupt fashion last month, has been training with his old club this week and is under consideration for a run against Leeds at Welford Road tomorrow.

"Andy is a quality player and returns to us a more mature and complete outside-half, having averaged 15 points a game for Saracens," said Leicester's director of rugby, Dean Richards, whose signing of the Italian International Ramiro Pez from Rotherham during the off-season, has proved a blessing of the mixed variety.

The Midlanders are enduring their worst league campaign of the professional era - currently 10th in the 12-team table, out of the Powergen Cup and far from certain to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.

* John Mitchell, replaced as All Black coach by Graham Henry last week, has accepted two new coaching jobs. Mitchell has signed a two-year contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union to provide coaching services and will also coach his home union, Waikato, in the National Provincial Championship next season.