Tigers ready to take on Bath

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The Independent Online
The Courage Clubs' Championship has more than seven months to run but already the significance to the campaign's eventual outcome of this afternoon's skirmish between Leicester and Bath cannot be exaggerated, writes Steve Bale.

It has taken only two rounds of First Division fixtures to reduce the 100 per cent sides to last season's first and second and Harlequins, and Welford Road, will be crammed with a capacity crowd approaching 17,000 with its new stand in use for the first time. Here is bums-on-seats evidence of why England's First Division clubs believe they have a product to sell as well as believing they would make a better job of it than the Rugby Football Union.

Not that even Leicester's 14,000-strong membership and progressive attitude mean clubs in general would confess to being ready for professionalism. Defiant as they may increasingly be of their national unions, 83 per cent of the First Division clubs in the home countries say they cannot afford to pay players in a poll conducted by Rugby World magazine.

A cynic might add that today's mega-fixture gives its participants the chance to parade their wares with a view to sharing in the mega-bucks Newcastle United are bringing to Newcastle RFC though, having said that, the player-manager Rob Andrew for now plays on for Wasps, at home to Saracens today.

With professionalism arriving more inexorably than officialdom cares to acknowledge, there are changed imperatives for players and clubs. If some of the Tigers take a look at all those spectators and then adjust their wage claims upwards, they can hardly be blamed.

As it happens, both parties are doing their best to see beyond this game, if only so that defeat can also be downplayed. But as Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, expects more than two defeats to be at least one too many, this early in the season would be a most unpropitious time.

The Bath players have enjoyed this week's tale of the tape: the video of Leicester malfeasance sent to leading referees by the RFU's refereeing officer, Steve Griffiths. But if there is one English team capable of adapting, All Black-style, to a referee (in this case Tony Rowlands from Wales), it is the Tigers, who since their success last season have no hang-ups about Bath.

Much of the attention may be turned on Leicester but we should not forget Harlequins, who, by beating Bristol at The Stoop, would overtake the Welford Road losers.

The main match in Wales brings Swansea to Cardiff, with Derwyn Jones back three weeks after being concussed by Kobus Wiese's punch from behind in the South Africa-Wales Test.