Bath's depth of talent gives Connolly a headache

Chris Hewett
Saturday 20 December 2003 01:00

At some point over the next eight months or so, John Connolly will be obliged to stop hiding behind a convenient smoke screen of injuries, unavailabilities and international call-ups. He will look down his squad list, realise to his horror that everyone is fit and, unable to put it off any longer, set about choosing the optimum Bath back division from the following array of talent: Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw, Lee Best, Simon Danielli, Brendon Daniel, Wylie Human, Mike Tindall, Robbie Fleck, Kevin Maggs, Andrew Higgins, Alex Crockett, Olly Barkley and Mike Catt.

It will be fascinating to see how the Queenslander approaches this not inconsiderable problem. Coaches always claim to prefer selecting from strength, but weakness is often easier. World Cup demands and long-term injuries to the likes of Fleck, the former Springbok centre, have allowed Connolly to concentrate his attentions on young, uncapped wannabes - players such as Barkley, whose growing maturity at outside-half gives Clive Woodward a feasible alternative to Jonny Wilkinson, and Higgins, who has been a revelation throughout Bath's rise to the top of the Premiership pile.

Both men will face Newcastle at the Recreation Ground this afternoon, where victory will ensure that Bath go into the new year ahead of the pack. "These are the people who have taken us through the first half of the campaign," said Connolly, who has restored Michael Lipman, the former Bristol open-side flanker, to the back-row combination following a three-match suspension.

"We've done remarkably well to open up an 11-point gap with what is essentially a new side," he added, "and blokes like Barkley and Higgins do not want to throw away the advantage, having worked so hard to achieve it. I have a fairly clear idea who I would pick if there was a cup final next weekend and everyone was available, but we're not there yet. Let's just say it is by no means certain that I would go for every established international over an uncapped player."

Newcastle, the one side to have beaten Bath this season, could have used the services of the injured Wilkinson today and could certainly have done without the absences of Hugh Vyvyan, Epi Taione, Marius Hurter and Ben Gollings, all of whom are involved in the disruptive proceedings at Twickenham. But they do head south-west with some very useful players in the back five of their scrum - Stuart Grimes, Warren Britz and the outstanding Mark Andrews - plus a back division organised by Mark Mayerhofler, the former All Black centre, and featuring swaggering youngsters in David Walder and Michael Stephenson.

Derby day in the east Midlands has been enlivened by Dean Richards' sharp criticism of the counter-attraction at Twickenham, which has deprived the Leicester director of rugby of Ollie Smith, Daryl Gibson and Martin Corry. Richards may not be quite so concerned at the absences of Ben Cohen and Paul Grayson from the Northampton line-up for this afternoon's rumble at Franklin's Gardens, but his point was well made. Northampton-Leicester matches are among the most eagerly anticipated occasions of the domestic campaign. How many more of them can be devalued by representative calls before the supporters start voting with their feet?

Rotherham's followers have been voting with theirs all season; indeed, the terraces at Millmoor resemble nothing more than a screwed-up ballot paper. Today, the Premiership paupers seek the first points of a desperate season against London Irish, the most surprising package of an unpredictable competition. "We need a win, ideally with a bonus point," said Mike Umaga, the Rotherham player-coach. The way the Yorkshiremen are playing, he might as well ask for the earth.

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