Meehan defends selection as lukewarm Bath travel to face wobbling Wasps

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The Independent Online

Wasps, the European champions, may be struggling in the Guinness Premiership they currently stand 10th of 12, a fact that generates a considerable degree of schadenfreude around the shires but they really aren't as bad as they seem. Certainly, they are not so dire as to be considered a walkover in High Wycombe. So why have Bath, second in the table on points difference, decided to travel to this afternoon's game with a starting line-up shorn of their best five players? Mmmm.

Olly Barkley and Steve Borthwick are at least on the bench, which is more than can be said for Matt Stevens, their outstanding prop, and the South African half-backs who have made a significant contribution lately: Michael Claasens and Butch James. According to Steve Meehan, head coach at the Recreation Ground, this is a horses-for-courses selection rather than a naked attempt to keep top-drawer performers fresh for the home game with Gloucester, the leaders, next Friday night. Then again, he would say that, wouldn't he?

With sell-out audiences guaranteed at Gloucester, Leicester and Worcester this afternoon, and a near-capacity crowd expected at Adams Park, it is not obviously the time for clubs to take liberties on the selection front. Any Wasps-Bath contest should be a must-see humdinger, not a maybe-maybe not. But with the World Cup dominating the early part of the season and the returning England players suffering all manner of aches and pains as a consequence, it is unreasonable to expect the first XV to do duty every week of the year.

Take Bristol. The meeting with their nearest and dearest from Gloucester at Kingsholm this afternoon has long been anticipated as a highlight of the West Country season; indeed, the match sold out well before Christmas. But the visitors are in pieces, the spine of their team absent. Dan Ward-Smith, the No 8 who might well have made the World Cup but for a dislocated kneecap, is crocked again not so horribly but just as frustratingly while Shaun Perry, who did make the trip to France as a scrum-half, could easily have died after playing on with a fractured windpipe a couple of weekends ago. To make matters worse, Mark Regan is not quite up to starting, having played injured. David Blaney, his understudy, smashed his ankle within a few minutes of Perry doing himself a mischief, so Scott Linklater is pressed into service.

Richard Hill, the Bristol head coach, admits he is stretched to breaking point in some positions, and with the strong-performing Saracens heading for the Memorial Ground next weekend and a thankless Heineken Cup visit to Stade Franais scheduled for five days later, the immediate itinerary is not in the least bit funny. No wonder there is some juggling going on.

If Gloucester are in better heart, it is not simply because they find themselves on top of the log. Ryan Lamb, their brilliant young outside-half, has committed himself to the club for another two seasons, during which term he can confidently expect to be capped by England.

"There has been a lot said and written about me," he said yesterday, "but it was up to me to go out and earn myself a new contract to show the coaches I have the ability to learn and mature. These things are not just handed out and in that respect I am really pleased to have made progress this season. Being a local kid, nothing gives me greater satisfaction than pulling on a Gloucester shirt. I've never wanted to go anywhere else."

One of this afternoon's profound fascinations is the meeting between Worcester and Harlequins at Sixways. Wasps may be 10th but they are a long way clear of the bottom two, Worcester and Leeds, and if, with their full hand of former All Blacks, the home side slip up against a Quins outfit in a truly desperate run of form there will be deep concern in the West Midlands. With Rico Gear on the wing, Sam Tuitupou at centre and Greg Rawlinson in the engine room, there is no conceivable reason why Worcester should not do a job. There again, losing can be an ugly habit.

Worcester's one possible safety net, Leeds, have the toughest of tough asks against Sale at Headingley tomorrow. The visitors, up in the play-off zone after a series of convincing performances, can afford to leave Andrew Sheridan, Sbastien Bruno, Dean Schofield and the exceptional Argentine flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe on the bench. A long afternoon for the Yorkshiremen? Probably.