Wasps unchanged for title defence

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The Independent Online

"There is no point being champions of Europe and not being champions of your own country," Warren Gatland, the Wasps coach, pronounced yesterday.

"There is no point being champions of Europe and not being champions of your own country," Warren Gatland, the Wasps coach, pronounced yesterday.

The New Zealander might have been thinking of Clive Woodward's England, who are both the best team in the world and the third-best team in the northern hemisphere. Gatland has no intention of allowing a wonderful season to peter out, as England's did during the Six Nations' Championship, and therefore has decided to throw the paintbox - plus brushes, easel and artist's smock - at tomorrow's Premiership final.

Wasps used the bare minimum of players in relieving Toulouse of the Heineken Cup at Twickenham last Sunday and, when they return to south-west London for their domestic scrap with Bath, an identical line-up will start. "We were fortunate enough to avoid injuries in the Heineken, so I'm fielding the same side for the third week running," he said. "Winning the European Cup has given us the momentum to go into this game confident and battle-hardened. We are desperate to retain this title."

In truth, Gatland did not have to stretch his mental faculties too far in arriving at his decision. Wasps' starting combination is infinitely stronger than their bench - only Ayoola Erinle, a tank of a centre who scores late tries for a pastime, is a replacement of the game-breaking variety, but is not yet equipped to threaten the established midfield partnership of Stuart Abbott and Fraser Waters.

John Connolly, the head coach at Bath, had more options - his bench will include three full internationals in Olly Barkley, Mike Catt and Rob Fidler, plus the South African-born Matt Stevens, who is about to tour New Zealand and Australia with England and is virtually certain to get himself capped. On the face of it, Connolly risks a large chunk of his sizeable reputation by running an undecorated outside-half in Chris Malone ahead of Barkley and Catt, who have both played 10 at Test level. There again, the Australian tactician has forgotten more about big-match selection than most of us will ever know.

Leicester, who play Sale in the Wildcard curtain-raiser to the Premiership showpiece and hope to secure themselves a Heineken Cup place, were not blessed with a choice of outside-halves once the Springboks refused to release Jaco van der Westhuyzen, a major hit at Welford Road this season.

Andy Goode moves from full-back to stand-off in a side captained by a certain Martin Osborne Johnson. Remember him? More to the point, does anyone remember Ben Kay? Once again, Leicester will be without England's World Cup-winning middle jumper - Louis Deacon, the hottest young second row in the country, partners Johnson - and Kay's chances of keeping his Test place against the All Blacks in a fortnight are slim indeed.

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