Mears and Stevens return as Bath battle on two fronts
Saturday 17 May 2008
It is a confusing time of year. Steve Borthwick, the new England captain, played his final game for Bath at the Recreation Ground without realising it, while Lawrence Dallaglio, one of the half-dozen most celebrated players of the professional era, does not know for sure whether he will kiss goodbye to the game he loves at High Wycombe tomorrow or at Twickenham next weekend. Leicester, meanwhile, have flummoxed themselves by qualifying for a Premiership semi-final they publicly declared to be beyond them. Contrary to expectation, not least their own, they may yet retain their title.
Even the medical profession cannot work out what the hell is going on. Seven days ago, three key England internationals – Mike Tindall, Lee Mears and Matt Stevens – seemed unlikely to recover from their orthopaedic traumas in time for the forthcoming tour of New Zealand, let alone the conclusion of the domestic programme Suddenly, they are fighting fit and ready to rock. There are only two conceivable explanations: either they are studying at Rada on their days off, or they are prepared to play injured for the cause.
And what a cause. Bath, who have not won a trophy since lifting the Heineken Cup a decade ago, have two chances between now and the end of the month, and if both options are still open to them come teatime tomorrow, it will be fascinating to see how they juggle their priorities. As Leicester proved last season, it is devilishly difficult to win finals in consecutive weeks. Will Bath throttle back against Worcester in the European Challenge Cup decider in seven days' time if they have a place in the Premiership showpiece at Twickenham six days later? They will surely be tempted.
First, they must find a way past Wasps – never easy at the best of times, and particularly difficult at Adams Park, an anonymous stadium in a desolate corner of an unremarkable town. Dallaglio's side is at full strength, and is therefore something to behold. There are those who argue that Phil Vickery, the injured World Cup-winning prop, would strengthen the front row, but Pat Barnard is some scrummager when the force is with him. Bath, well used to bossing people around up front, will do well to impose authority on these opponents.
Still, the unexpectedly rapid recoveries of Mears and Stevens mean the West Countrymen will also take the field at something close to the optimum, although it would be more reassuring for travelling supporters to see Nick Abendanon at full-back and Joe Maddock on the right wing. The decision to leave the former on the bench, keep Maddock at No 15 and stick with the incendiary Andrew Higgins is the one area of selectorial dispute. Steve Meehan, the coach, must have his reasons.
Just as Leicester have their reasons for omitting the likes of George Chuter and Tom Croft from their starting line-up for tomorrow's trip to Gloucester, the regular-season "champions". Gloucester have risen high in the estimation over the last fortnight, winning at Wasps and then staring down Bath in a wonderful contest at Kingsholm, but a fully tuned-in Tigers team might threaten them. Is Mefin Davies, the veteran Wales hooker, a better bet than Chuter? Is it really sensible to keep a forward as potent as Croft under lock and key on the bench? It is the kind of selection that has defined Marcelo Loffreda's difficult early months as the head coach, and for all the Argentinian's courage in picking it as he sees it, there are plenty who question his judgement. A bad defeat tomorrow would set the tongues wagging again.
Alesana Tuilagi, the Samoan outhouse who single-handedly splattered Gloucester all over Twickenham in last season's final, is back in business on the left wing, but otherwise, Loffreda is sticking with the people who very nearly played themselves out of play-off contention – and out of next season's Heineken Cup into the bargain – a week ago. However, Leicester know more about must-win rugby than any club in England. Like the game at High Wycombe, this one has a last-five-minute smell about it.
Saracens, who ended their season seven days ago with a sentimental farewell to their marvellous flanker Richard Hill, have acted quickly to secure the great man's replacement. The 29-year-old South African forward Wikus van Heerden, who made six appearances for the Springboks during their successful World Cup campaign last autumn, has agreed to leave the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls in November and head for Watford.
It is far from the worst of signings. As the Bulls business manager Ian Schwartz said yesterday: "Wikus is an unbelievable team player, leader and thinker, and sets the perfect example for younger players as they learn what it means to be a professional." Just like Hill, in fact.
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