Wasps brace themselves to withstand the Bath backlash

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The Independent Online
Bath lost at Wasps last season - which according to a tradition hallowed by 11 years of ascendancy is reason enough for the vengeful spirit they will apply to this afternoon's first return to Sudbury, writes Steve Bale.

It has long been the essence of the club that each new group of players swiftly assimilate the lessons of their most distressing experiences. Already Wasps have been given one blow to their presumption with the cup- final defeat at the end of last season.

Lest we have forgotten - and it would be easy to have done so since the Rugby Football Union chose that very May day to sack Will Carling as captain - Bath succeeded handsomely at Twickenham where they had been narrowly beaten in Brent six weeks earlier.

Another, perfectly topical beauty of Bath is that there is no such thing as a star syndrome at the club. This was famously illustrated when Paul Simpson played for England at Lansdowne Road in 1987 and the very next week at Lansdown, a suburb of Bath, for his club's second team.

Now it is Victor Ubogu's turn and, given that there was a similar contretemps involving the England prop last season, you have to wonder how much longer he will wish to devote himself to Bath, or indeed how much longer Bath will wish to devote themselves to him.

Philip de Glanville, the captain, has publicly called Ubogu's commitment into question, a withering stricture. And the fact that Ubogu is displaced by a loose-head prop playing for Bath on the tight head for the first time is both pointed and calculated.

Dave Hilton, a Scottish internationalist who has not played league rugby for eight months, may not be overjoyed himself once he has tangled with the Ireland loose head, Nick Popplewell. His inclusion, or rather Ubogu's exclusion, is meant as a threat to some and incentive to others. "If anyone isn't playing as well as we expect, he'll be dropped," De Glanville said.

Wasps share third place with Leicester behind Bath and Harlequins. For the visit to bottom-placed West Hartlepool, the Tigers make what may be a portentous change at half-back. On grounds of mundane efficiency if nothing else, it is not hard to imagine the supposedly temporary restoration of last season's pair, Jez Harris and Aadel Kardooni, lasting longer than today.

A calf injury keeps Carling out of Quins' game against Saracens, an untimely absence when rugby-as-therapy has given him an apparently efficacious diversion from his personal problems. Premature as it may seem to say so, Gloucester's visit to Orrell will probably have critical implications when relegation comes to be decided next April. Bristol and Sale would demur at a similar description of their game but need the points no less urgently.

All the aforementioned are already gearing themselves up for professional rugby even while the RFU's consideration of what to do next drags on, keeping the increasingly irritated leading clubs on tenterhooks. They may be interested to know they are not alone.

In Scotland Colin Paxton, cousin of the distinguished scrum-half Gary Armstrong and a former Carlisle rugby league professional, wishes to avail himself of the immediately applicable free gangway into rugby union agreed by the International Board last weekend by turning out for Hawick Harlequins.

No way, says the Scottish Rugby Union, not at any rate until "confirmation" of the IB's Tokyo decisions is received. Well here it is: as soon as Vernon Pugh, chairman of the IB's amateurism committee, arrived back at Heathrow he said every aspect of the sweeping-away of amateurism is here and now. That was last Sunday.