Connolly's task to rouse Bath for one final push

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The Independent Online

Bath's supporters know what it is to plumb the depths of depression; this time last year they feared their beloved club was about to be incorporated into a Greater Bristol, which is as low as it is possible for a Recreation Ground regular to sink in terms of spiritual despair. So the fact that this current season looks like lasting about a month too long for John Connolly's team is an irritation, rather than a cause for collective suicide.

Bath's supporters know what it is to plumb the depths of depression; this time last year they feared their beloved club was about to be incorporated into a Greater Bristol, which is as low as it is possible for a Recreation Ground regular to sink in terms of spiritual despair. So the fact that this current season looks like lasting about a month too long for John Connolly's team is an irritation, rather than a cause for collective suicide.

All the same, the coming weeks could be painful for the West Countrymen. Knocked out of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup by Montferrand a week ago, Bath appear to be on their last legs as they head into the closing stages of the domestic campaign - indeed, they look like a side who, having repeatedly dipped into their reserves of collective will-power to win a long series of knife-edge matches, are beginning to run on empty.

Connolly was not awarded the nickname "Knuckles" because he is a sporting pacifist; the former coach of Queensland, Stade Français and Swansea is a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie who has punched his way - verbally, rather than physically - around the union landscape for decades. If anyone can inject some energy into an exhausted group of players who are three straight victories away from a first championship since 1996, he can. But his credentials as a motivator will be sorely tested, for Connolly has never before experienced a league programme contested at this level of ferocity, for this length of time.

Tomorrow, Bath travel to Harlequins - a team on a roll, rather than a treadmill, having successfully negotiated a rigorous test of nerve and mettle in Connacht last weekend. Bath have already qualified for next season's Heineken Cup; Quins have yet to make the cut, although they have three possible routes open to them. The fact that the Londoners are motivated to such a degree is the negative side of the equation from Bath's perspective. Suddenly, the Stoop Memorial Ground is an awkward venue, especially as there will be a capacity crowd of 8,500.

In a bid to freshen things up while nursing important players, Connolly has left two Test outside-halves, Olly Barkley and Mike Catt, on the bench. It is a high-risk policy, for if Bath end up in second place they will lumber themselves with an extra game in the shape of a Premiership play-off against either Northampton or Gloucester, neither of whom could be described as friendly rivals.

If the West Countrymen have been peering anxiously over their shoulders at Wasps for some weeks now, they are not alone. Everyone has been aware of the champions' glorious explosion of form - a seismic mix of attacking ambition, iron defence, supremely effective "game management" (otherwise known as clever manipulation of the law book) and a physicality bordering on the brutal. Six days after a Heineken Cup semi-final triumph over Munster in Dublin that must be included among the half-dozen finest matches of the professional era, they travel to Gloucester in search of yet another major-league victory - not any old major-league victory, either, but one of the bonus-point variety.

It is a measure of Wasps' levels of self-belief that they do not consider this to be so much pie in the sky; Lawrence Dallaglio and company put five tries past Munster at Lansdowne Road, which is some achievement given the scale of the occasion and the burning desire of their opponents.

Yet they may be asking just a little too much this time. Kingsholm is always a heart-on-sleeve kind of place when the Londoners come visiting, and with Andy Deacon, the 38-year-old prop from the local Longlevens club, making his final home appearance after 16 years between the front-row shafts, the Shed will not countenance defeat at the hands of some uppity buggers from the capital.

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