Stand off in the stand-offs' showdown

RUGBY UNION: Frustration building for Rowell as search for the next generation of England talent proves inconclusive again
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Dick Best kept using the expression "God willing" and if the deity was telling us anything about would-be England outside-halves in Bath's 19-13 victory over Harlequins it is that He is not best pleased.

First Rob Andrew, a saintly figure if ever there was one, became a sinner (in Wasps' eyes, at any rate) and retired from international rugby in order to buy Newcastle a team. Then David Pears and Mike Catt, pretenders to the golden crown, went head to head at The Stoop and ended up being assisted off after going leg to leg.

Both have badly bruised shins not deemed serious enough to threaten their availability for selection to face South Africa on 18 November but more than likely to remove them from the next stage - Gloucester v Harlequins, Bath v Saracens - of their clubs' exhausting start to the season. Bath lead the First Division with seven wins from seven; Quins stay third.

That apart, it is enough to make Jack Rowell weep, as he apparently has felt like doing of late while criticism of his England stewardship has been growing more vituperative. Last Tuesday's session at Marlow was shambolic enough because of the injuries that seem to beset squad members more than others. Now this.

Still, the game was at least almost up when the two had their collision, neither having established his credentials any more convincingly than before. Whom to choose depends on whom you ask. "Catty is the man in form at the moment and until he went off I thought Catty had slightly the better game of the two," John Hally - sorry Hall - the Bath manager, said.

On the other hand Best, Quins' director of rugby, would pick Pears. "They are very similar players and both are capable of playing either position, full-back or fly-half, for England," was his version. "God willing, both will be fit to play against South Africa. In international rugby you don't want to change the team around too much and I think Catty will play full- back and, God Willing, Pearsy will play fly-half."

Strange, that. I could have sworn Besty, a former England coach who insists he is not bitter over his sacking by Rowell, was castigating the England manager only the other day for not changing enough. Just as well, then, that Rowell was absent and represented instead by two other selectors, Les Cusworth and Mike Slemen.

When they talked to Hall, they would have found him persuasively arguing not only Catt's case but also that of Andy Robinson (that's right, Robbo) and any other Bath player you care to mention: Jonathan Callard (JC), Audley Lumsden (?) etc etc. "I'm only doing my job," Hall said in self- justification. In that case, would he like to be England manager? "Not yet."

As for an entertaining match, it was the third time this season Bath had eked out a vital victory away to their closest rivals, Leicester and Wasps having already fallen, but yet another instance of execution falling below good intention. This was primarily down to the profusion of handling errors and reflected familiarly on the skill levels of the supposedly best of English.

Bath's try, by Lumsden, and Harlequins', by Daren O'Leary, were scintillating exceptions which cried out for more. Bath were the more culpable because they won considerably more possession, and Quins could take some consolation from this further evidence of their improvement over last season's relegation near-miss.

You might say anything would be better than that and indubitably there would have been none of the instant self-criticism with which Bath reacted if Quins, rather than Bath, had been six- or even one-point winners. Even the notoriously sulphuric Best could not forbear to commend a narrow defeat against "an obviously better team". "It's a gradual, long-term thing to drag yourself out of the gutter," he added pleasantly.

Quins had been undermined by the midday withdrawal of two back-row forwards, Chris Sheasby and Rory Jenkins, and once Pears had departed were so badly disrupted that Brian Moore, better known as England's hooker, had to replace the outside-half and then play open-side flanker in the consequent reshuffle. How fortunate there were only nine more stoppage-extended minutes to run.

Best also felt, in the tendentious way coaches have, that his boys had the worse of the decisions - the worst of which was the one made by the Rugby Football Union to have Chris White in the middle and Ed Morrison, the World Cup final referee no less, running the line.

This is no disrespect to White nor necessarily great respect to Morrison, who had endeared himself to neither Wasps nor Bath a fortnight earlier, but even a noted RFU committee man present was moved to splutter that he could not understand what on earth the referees' committee was playing at.

It seems the RFU can get nothing right. Take the moratorium on professionalism: Hall is desperate to have contracts in place to help his players withstand the inducements of rivals, though Best has the contrasting satisfaction that his two North-easterners, Mick Watson and Simon Mitchell, have turned down Rob Andrew and others are simply not interested in going professional.

"We always look at life after rugby and some sort of career pattern for players," he said. "A majority go through the City, where they get very good jobs and tend generally to do quite well in their careers. To give up the day-job for pounds 25,000-a-year professional rugby is probably not of prime importance to them." Meaning, not as well paid.

Harlequins: Try O'Leary; Conversion Pears; Penalty Pears; Drop goal Pears. Bath: Try Lumsden; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 4.

Harlequins: J Staples (C Wright, h/t); D O'Leary, W Carling, P Mensah, S Bromley; D Pears (B Moore, 75), R Kitchin (capt); S Brown, S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher (I Pickup, 62), M Russell, M Watson, G Allison.

Bath: J Callard; A Lumsden, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt (S Johnson, 75), I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, E Peters, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).