Van Gisbergen could be key to title showdown

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Contradictory to the bitter end, Toulouse spent last Sunday afternoon demonstrating precisely how to beat Wasps in a major final while concocting a foolproof method of losing to them. Assuming Bath concentrate on emulating the more productive aspects of the French giants' Heineken Cup display - the heavy scrummaging, the ferociously competitive line-out work, the determination to keep the ball alive - and successfully avoid the dodgy goal-kicking, the gross impatience and the over-egging of whatever pudding happens to be available, Twickenham will have a match and a half on its hands for the second time in a week.

Contradictory to the bitter end, Toulouse spent last Sunday afternoon demonstrating precisely how to beat Wasps in a major final while concocting a foolproof method of losing to them. Assuming Bath concentrate on emulating the more productive aspects of the French giants' Heineken Cup display - the heavy scrummaging, the ferociously competitive line-out work, the determination to keep the ball alive - and successfully avoid the dodgy goal-kicking, the gross impatience and the over-egging of whatever pudding happens to be available, Twickenham will have a match and a half on its hands for the second time in a week.

This evening's Premiership final features two unusually consistent teams, handsomely equipped with the games to beat each other. Bath can take considerable heart from the way the Toulouse tight forwards devoured the Londoners at the set-piece; indeed, they will back Duncan Bell, Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock to make a similar mess of the holders whenever three or more of the heavy mob are joined together in unholy antipathy. The West Countrymen will also expect their breakaway trio of Andy Beattie, Michael Lipman and Zak Fea'unati to make a better fist of the loose exchanges. Six days ago, only Finau Maka stacked up against Lawrence Dallaglio and his hard-tackling flankers.

There again, Bath have not played a serious game of rugby for three weeks - four, if you take the view that their final regular-season match against a powder-puff Gloucester side was about as demanding as a beach holiday in the Maldives.

"The gap has been a really serious problem," conceded John Connolly, the challengers' head coach. "We've tried to get around it as best we can, but we won't know how successful we've been until it's too late to do anything about it. This is Wasps' time, definitely; they've had a fortnight of high-pressure rugby and they're on a roll. We'll have to dig deep, I reckon."

Bath have been wielding the shovel for much of the campaign, winning tight games on the back of selectorial continuity up front and Olly Barkley's Test-class marksmanship. The usual suspects among the forwards will be on show at Twickenham, barring the injured loosehead prop David Flatman. And Barkley? It is anyone's guess as to when - or, indeed, whether - he plays a part. Demoted to the bench at the beginning of the month and then dropped altogether, England's most recent outside-half is back among the replacements after impressing in training on Wednesday. He may yet prove an influential figure. On the other hand, he may spend the day kicking his heels, rather than the match ball.

Wasps start as favourites, for obvious reasons. For all the undignified scrambling they were forced into by Toulouse last weekend, they outscored their opponents by three tries to one - and Bath are nowhere near as dangerous outside the scrum as the Frenchmen. The Londoners can also point to a deserved, if narrow, victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground in February, when the full-back Mark van Gisbergen slipped in for the only try of the match.

Van Gisbergen scores for fun these days, and was responsible for 17 of his side's 27 Heineken Cup-winning points. Few who have watched him of late would die of shock were he to decide the issue here.

By way of a curtain-raiser - pray, when did Martin Johnson last play in a warm-up match? - Leicester take on Sale in the final of the Wildcard tournament, a fixture offering the not inconsiderable prize of a Heineken Cup place for 2004-05. As the Midlanders, twice European champions and regular participants at the élite end of the club game, refuse to countenance the prospect of a season among the flotsam and jetsam of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, they will be hugely motivated today.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construct a case for their opponents, despite the try-scoring brilliance of a back three featuring Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto and Steve Hanley. It is far from ideal playing any game without the services of Graeme Bond, Bryan Redpath, Andy Sheridan, Iain Fullarton and Pete Anglesea. To play against a rejuvenated Leicester at two-thirds strength is the stuff of nightmares.

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