West Country must face some home truths

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Traditional rugby union strongholds of Bath, Bristol and Gloucester have not been having their own way in the Premiership for some time.

Traditional rugby union strongholds of Bath, Bristol and Gloucester have not been having their own way in the Premiership for some time.

THERE IS a long cherished and deeply felt notion in the West Country that no one outside the three rugby citadels of Bath, Bristol and Gloucester has the faintest idea how to play the 15-man game, let alone play itsuccessfully.

That the English champions have come from other parts of the island since 1996 is largely ignored by the myopic clansmen of the Cotswolds and Mendips, who view this unpalatable development as confirmation of a conspiracy involving referees, Twickenham committee types and God himself.

But it is beginning to dawn on the rustic rugger-buggers of the South-West that all is not well in their own backyard. Bristol are on their knees and Gloucester are sinking in the quicksand of internal discontent. As for the cravat-andcorduroy aristocrats of Bath... well, the most that can be said for them is that they are winning, albeit in a style radically different from that to which they have grown accustomed. Far from lording it over the rest of the country, the western triumvirate are some way off the pace set by Saracens and Leicester. Even Sale - yes, Sale - were able to beat all three in as many weeks.

For any number of reasons, today's round of Premiership fixtures has a backs-against-the-wall feel to it. Bristol take on Leicester at the Memorial Ground, where they have not prevailed over the Tigers since 1994, with no real idea as to when Jack Rowell, the former England coach, might take over as director of rugby, asrequested by the club's owner, Malcolm Pearce.

Gloucester, psychologically vulnerable following Ian Jones's resignation as captain in midweek, put what is left of their reputation on the line against a hard-working and dangerous Harlequins side, while Bath face a genuine test of their suspect forward muscle at Northampton.

Given that Bristol are holding the smelliest end of the stick at the moment - second from bottom after five defeats on the bounce - it was interesting to hear Pearce playing the optimist yesterday. "I'm still confident the players can turn things around," insisted the millionaire investor. "Once they register a win, things will look very different, and the wonderful thing about sport is that no one can be sure about the outcome. Our pack is widely regarded as formidable and we have been able to chalk up a decent number of tries. It can only be a matter of time before it all comes together."

Just two small points. Taken in isolation, the fact that the Bristol pack is formidable does not butter too many parsnips: you might just as well say that Paula Radcliffe is absolutely brilliant over 9,000 metres of a 10,000 metre race. And things will not look that different if Dean Ryan and company turn Leicester over this afternoon. The Memorial Ground crowd will still be a fraction of what it should be, the knives will still be out behind closed doors and the injury list will still be measured in miles rather than inches. Pearce was right about one thing, though: it is indeed only a matter of time. As one celebrated ex-Bristol player commented the other day: "Things are moving in the right direction. We'll have it cracked by the turn of the century."

Thirty miles or so up the M5, Gloucester must be wondering where the next body blow is coming from. Again, injuries are having a debilitating effect, but it was the resignation of Jones, the most-capped All Black lock in history, that hit a proud club smack between the eyes. It will be down to another Jones, the former Wales open side and all-round good egg Kingsley, to inspire a half-decent performance from a side desperately low on confidence. If anyone can carry it off, he can.

"I'm looking for us to get back to basics," he said, falling back on the kind of Tory phraseology that would not go down especially well in his native Ebbw Vale. "That means having a really big defence, from where everything stems. We were superb in that area last season, but we've already conceded 175 points and 16 tries this time. Also, I shall be reminding the players that our Heineken Cup campaign starts at Llanelli in less than a fortnight. We worked incredibly hard to get into Europe and it would be terrible to waste all that effort now."

Bath travel to Franklin's Gardens without Mike Catt, who damaged a nerve in his rear end during the victory at Gloucester a fortnight ago. Northampton have the real injury problems, though: Craig Moir, their international wing, is out for a good three months after breaking an ankle and there is still no sign of Matt Dawson or Tim Rodber. At their training run yesterday, the Saints had only seven fit backs. Expect them to keep it tight this afternoon.