Gloucester will lose Mercier to Grenoble

Poor old Gloucester. Currently labouring under the title of "champions without a championship" thanks to the iniquities of the Premiership play-off system, they will soon find themselves without an outside-half into the bargain.

Ludovic Mercier, recruited from Aurillac by Philippe Saint-André a couple of seasons ago and the accumulator of well over 600 points in next to no time, will return to France this summer to spearhead Grenoble's challenge for domestic honours next term. His fellow countryman, the hooker Olivier Azam, is also set to leave the club, with Castres leading the race for his signature.

Nigel Melville, the director of rugby at Kingsholm, has resigned himself to a mini-exodus following months of financial uncertainty, redundancies among the back-room staff and talk of pay cuts among the playing squad. Some players are owed thousands of pounds in bonuses. Mercier, a world-class goal-kicker, was never likely to be short of lucrative offers from his homeland, where the professional clubs are blissfully unrestricted by a salary cap. Neither was Azam, a strong candidate for World Cup duty this autumn.

Grenoble are in an ambitious frame of mind. Promoted last season, they beat the powerful Montferrand to a place in the end-of-term play-offs and still have a puncher's chance of qualifying for the 2003-04 Heineken Cup. With Mercier on board – he watched their match against Agen at the weekend and has signed for two years – and largely affected by World Cup call-ups, they will fancy their prospects of progress.

Should Azam agree terms with Castres, who have had a rough time of it since losing a Heineken Cup semi-final to Munster last spring, he will replace the former national captain Raphael Ibanez in the middle of the front row. Ibanez is being pursued by both Leicester and Harlequins – Leicester's first-choice hooker, Dorian West, is nearing the end of the road, while Quins have already waved farewell to the inspirational Keith Wood – and is believed to favour a spell in England after World Cup duty in Australia.

Whatever the extent of Gloucester's problems, there is a greater feeling of alarm elsewhere in the West Country. The prospective merger between Bath and Bristol, two of the Premiership's bottom three, has prompted a gathering of the clans, with petitions being posted on a variety of websites. Significantly, though, members of the official Bath supporters' club have yet to declare their hand – a sign, perhaps, of their concern at Bath's three-point deficit at the foot of the table.

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