The conversion of Paul

Chris Hewett argues that Bath are ahead of the game with their new signing
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The Cynics were out in force as the reigning double champions Bath lifted the lid on the worst-kept secret in English rugby and unveiled the New Zealand rugby league phenomenon Henry Paul as their prize capture of the summer. The West Country men were never likely to pick up their man at a bargain basement price but at pounds 100,000 for four months' work - or, if you prefer, pounds 5,000 a game - he sold himself even more expensively than expected.

All of which led to rumblings behind the members' stand, to the effect that no matter how brilliantly Paul might perform at centre, stand-off, full-back, wing or scrum-half - Bath could legitimately play him in any position behind the scrum - the club could not realistically hope to get their money's worth.

Yet the indications are that Bath have stolen a march on their rivals once again. Paul, who has not played union since leaving school in Auckland nine years ago, is disenchanted with league and is considering a full- time move to the "other game" sooner rather than later. Bath believe he will so enjoy his initial stay at the Recreation Ground that, by the 1997- 98 season, he will join them for keeps.

"I'm certainly not going to play back-to-back league and union for the next five years," said the multi-talented 26-year-old, who returns to the 13-man game with Wigan in mid-January. "I'm going to have to make a decision on which way to go and it seems to me that union is moving in the right direction. League is in a static situation at the moment, so I'll be interested to see how I get on at Bath. I'm excited by the challenge; while I have played a lot of rugby recently, I'm sure this will re-energise me."

That came as music to the ears of the Bath coach, Brian Ashton, a league aficionado who was acutely aware of Paul's talents long before the historic cross-code matches with Wigan back in May. "I've watched every video of every game Henry has played over the last 12 months and I can only describe him as indescribable. Perhaps he is another Jeremy Guscott, by which I mean unclassifiable.

"It's up to us to make Henry's decision an easy one; certainly, I'd be very disappointed if we were only to see him for these four months. If he commits himself to union as we all hope, we intend it to be with us.

"Can you imagine what a player of his gifts could achieve here in company with Guscott, Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville? We would never need to call a move again, because we'd have enough class players to do everything off the cuff. I think we've already pushed back the boundaries further than any other English club, but we are still scared to go out there and live entirely off our wits. Henry Paul will take us another couple of steps down the road towards that endgame."

Although Paul considers himself to be a natural centre and, therefore, a challenger to the potent partnership forged by the England internationals Guscott and de Glanville, the coach is keeping an open mind. "Full-back is as much a possibility as anything else," he said. "And if we played him there, I would ban him from kicking the ball unless he found himself in the direst emergency. I would want him to run everything and tell the other 14 players to find a way of getting on his shoulder. A player of his quality makes anything and everything possible."

Paul's arrival follows another exercise in club democracy at Bath, where player power has long been in the ascendant. "We were aware of the possible disruption involved in signing someone on such a lucrative short-term contract, so we consulted the players themselves to test the water," John Hall, the director of rugby, said. "They were absolutely united in their enthusiasm for the idea. There was no suggestion of negativity."

Hall, who owes his position to a groundswell of support from the players on his retirement in 1995, has worked overtime to hang on to the lion's share of last season's squad. He has committed the club to the biggest wage bill in the English first division - best estimates suggest something in the region of pounds 1.75m - but thanks to the pounds 2.5m investment by a local businessman, the greetings-card magnate Andrew Brownsword, who now owns 75 per cent of the club, they have the financial clout to resist rugby's rampant market forces.

Although Brownsword bought an awfully big chunk of the club for a surprisingly small outlay, Bath are secure in the knowledge that they have an investor who is worth more, far more, than many Premiership football club chairmen. Unlike many of their rivals, the champions can pay their way even if the cash windfall from television turns out to be smaller than expected. With a lucrative stock-market flotation still to come, the cynics may soon be eating their words yet again.