Merger ruled out as Bath and Bristol discussions hit the buffers

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The Independent Online

The wild, wacky world of West Country rugby was back at its wildest and wackiest last night when Bath and Bristol, within days of a controversial merger this time last week, announced that all discussions between the respective owners, Andrew Brownsword and Malcolm Pearce, were at an end. The merger idea died a death when Bristol, rather than Bath, finished bottom of the Premiership and were relegated to National Division One. It now seems that Pearce's bid to buy a controlling interest in Bath has also hit the buffers.

Pearce has spent the last six months stating that his financial interest in Bristol, totalling some £9m over five years, would be severed at the end of the season. That remains the case, but there is a chance he will still be involved next season. Two of the more celebrated Bristol players of the post-war era, Alan Morley and Nigel Pomphrey, are fronting a consortium of local businessmen negotiating with Pearce in an effort to safeguard the club's future, but Pearce said last night that, if the discussions proved fruitless, he would consider continuing his support.

"We are starting a new chapter in Bristol's history," said Pomphrey, a former club captain, who hopes to table details of a five-year programme over the next couple of months. "We have an innovative structure and some outstanding people helping us, and we intend to activate a plan that will allow us to rebuild the club and weave ourselves back into the rugby fabric of the city." It was precisely what Bristolians wanted to hear. One of the principle reasons Pearce short-circuited his attempt to merge the two was the violent reaction of the Memorial Ground faithful.

Meanwhile, Bath confirmed that Brownsword, a distant and frequently disaffected owner, intended to continue his interest in affairs at the Recreation Ground. However, this depends on the club winning the support of the city council for a major development of the venue, currently administered by a charitable trust on behalf of the local population.

On the playing field, it is Premiership semi-final day. Gloucester won four more games, and finished 15 points better, than Wasps over the course of the 22-match Premiership, and were 20 points ahead of Northampton when the regular season ended a week ago. Just remember that when the latter two sides meet at Adams Park this evening in pursuit of a one-off, 80-minute tilt at the title. If today's winners manage to beat Phil Vickery and his fellow Kingsholmites at Twickenham in a fortnight's time, those charged with administering the professional club game in England will look pretty daft. And that will make a change, won't it?

Wayne Smith, the Northampton coach, is a keen enthusiast of the play-off system. Funny, that. "It's something we're used to in New Zealand," said the former All Black outside-half. "If you have shown the consistency to make the top three after 22 games, you deserve a crack at the title. And that is what we'll do, have a crack." Interestingly, Smith did not express a view on a side so consistent that they dominated the season almost from start to finish and ended with an advantage more decisive than anything Leicester managed during their four-year monopoly of the championship.

That being said, the game has at least captured a degree of public imagination. By late yesterday, around 90 per cent of the 10,200 available tickets had gone, and Wasps were thinking in terms of a sell-out. Given the paltry attendances at the two Zurich Wildcard play-off matches in midweek, the gimmick-obsessed board members of Premier Rugby could ill afford another flop. Their blushes have been saved for another week.

Northampton are a hot act on their day, but they will have it all to do against Wasps. Four front-line players – Peter Jorgensen, Matt Dawson, Tom Smith and Budge Pountney – are injured, so the starting line-up has an unfamiliar look. Bruce Reihana, impressive at wing and full-back since arriving from New Zealand, has been moved to outside centre; Ian Vass covers for Dawson at scrum-half; and Darren Fox, a natural blind-side flanker, fills the open-side berth vacated by Pountney. In the front row, Matt Stewart, a career tight head, makes the troublesome switch to loose head.

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