WHERE THE MATCH AT WELFORD ROAD WILL BE WON

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The Independent Online
It is as axiomatic as it is simplistic that rugby matches are won and lost up front, in the arcane world where the front-five forwards meet. But the beauty of today's decisive First Division match at Welford Road is that, though the axiom holds as true as ever, the balance of superiority will rely on a far more complicated range of imponderables.

In fact the meeting - confrontation would be a better word - of the Leicester and Bath props, hookers and locks is probably the most predictable area of this game in that it can be predicted that neither will gain much of an advantage.

With Martin Johnson comfortably the best line-out front-jumper in England and Bath perennially short of line-out possession through the absence of a specialist middle-jumper, the Tigers may fancy their chances here.

But the doughty Nigel Redman performs a heroic service as a stand- in middle-man - more than good enough to have earned him selection for England's World Cup squad - and in any case Bath have such a knack of making do with whatever they get that this is unlikely to be where the game, and with it the championship, is won and lost.

Rather the crisis points will be in the back row, where there will be a direct and highly instructive clash of styles, and at half-back. This is Neil Back's opportunity to prove that in fast conditions, rather like those of South Africa, a fast open side is more effective than the mastodon flankers, who are so in vogue that Steve Ojomoh has been preferred by Bath to Andy Robinson.

If Back is on the ball more often than Ojomoh, then Leicester will create the continuity that has disappeared from their play almost from the day they drew at Bath last October. That said, continuity will also depend on the judiciousness of the respective half-backs and while Leicester's have seriously lost form Bath's - notably the new outside-half, Richard Butland - have suddenly discovered theirs.

This development is not to be underestimated, since it has transformed Bath's rugby at the very moment the transformation was most needed after an unprecedented three consecutive league fixtures without a win and just as Leicester were finding the burden of leadership so hard to bear that, though they have still been winning in the league, they no longer lead.

Unlike the champions, they are also out of the cup so the pressure, usually on Bath, is now squarely on the Tigers and they have not lately looked as if they can withstand it.

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