Rugby Union: Petty politics cloud Bath's greatest day

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The Independent Online
It is being billed as the biggest club match in rugby history and if the sport's political class have their way, it will be the last occasion of its kind for some time.

Chris Hewett, in Bordeaux, savours the prospect of today's Heineken Cup final between Brive and Bath and laments the imminent passing of a world- class tournament.

It takes an awful lot of effort from a veritable army of people to create a tournament capable of reaching the heights of drama, romance and epic grandeur consistently scaled by the Heineken Cup over the last two seasons.

Unfortunately, it requires a mere handful of self-serving suits with overblown egos to bring the whole fragile edifice crashing to the ground. How appropriate that the final of a competition comprehensively wrecked by petty political squabbling straight from the pages of Clochmerle should be played in the middle of French wine country.

When Bath go toe to toe with their Gallic alter egos from Brive here this afternoon, they will effectively find themselves dancing on the deck of the Titanic. Betrayed by blinkered organisation and, from next season, boycotted by the English clubs, whose hard-line stance is finding increasing support among their brethren across the Channel, the Heineken Cup is drowning in an stagnant ocean of public point-scoring and private recrimination.

Given the fact that Brive, the reigning champions, have Alain Penaud, Richard Crespy and Olivier Magne back in their side after injury and put 50-odd points past Dax last weekend, Bath must be wondering whether they are about to sail straight into an iceberg. Written off with barely a second thought by virtually every coach and pundit in Europe, it will be a shock of seismic proportions if the West Countrymen prevail.

But in a very real sense, this afternoon's result is of secondary importance to the diplomatic initiatives taking place behind the scenes. Many of the key figures in the Heineken dispute are here, including Sir John Hall, the militant moneybags behind Newcastle and a driving force behind the boycott, and the entire board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the competition's alleged administrators.

Heineken executives have offered to mediate between the two sides - "We're quite happy to chair a meeting on neutral territory," said one - and while no one is confident of saving the tournament, at least the wheels within wheels are beginning to rotate.

"This may be the final final, as it were, so it's a game of massive significance for both sides," the Bath coach, Andy Robinson, said. "From the Bath perspective, it's the biggest game in our history and given that no one remembers losing finalists, we have no intention of coming second.

Bath were fantasising about European glory long before European glory actually existed and it is just possible that after weeks of off-field controversy and on-field ineptitude, they will retreat into themselves, wake the inner man from his slumbers and come out snorting.

If they cannot raise a sweat on an occasion like this - they have played this game over and over again in their dreams - then their decline is even more irreversible than it has appeared over the last fortnight.

"The guys are on edge," Robinson said. "We set out our European credentials years before any other English side and now that we have the opportunity to realise our greatest ambition, we're ready to go the extra mile. Brive are good, very good, but we've beaten them once this season and we can do it again."

Agreed. But Bath's victory over Philippe Carbonneau's team last October came at the end of Brive's week from hell, seven days in which they had fought two pitched battles with Pontypridd - one on the field and the other, more damagingly from all points of view, in a local bar - and been threatened with expulsion from the the competition that lies closest to their collective heart.

What was more, they travelled to the Recreation Ground with half a side, all of whom were scared to hit a ruck or make a tackle for fear of inviting another disciplinary witch-hunt.

When the dust finally settled and Bath travelled to Brive for the return pool match, they were sent packing with a flea the size of an elephant in their ear. The tea leaves point to another convincing French victory today; the champions have outright match-winners in Penaud, Christophe Lamaison, Lisandro Arbizu and Carbonneau and with Magne in sublime form on their open-side flank, a one-paced Bath back row may be severely embarrassed.

Yesterday morning, Jon Callard pitched up at Le Stade Lescure for an hour's goal-kicking, only to find that the locals had forgotten to erect the posts. If he fails to locate those posts again this afternoon, Bath can kiss the Heineken Cup goodbye. More importantly, if the talking heads fail to get their act together over a decent bottle of claret, we can all pucker out lips for a farewell peck.

BRIVE v BATH

at Le Stade Lescure, Bordeaux

D Casadei 1 D Hilton

L Travers 2 M Regan

R Crespy 3 V Ubogu

E Alegret 4 M Haag

Y Manhes 5 N Redman

L van der Linden 6 N Thomas

O Magne 7 R Webster

F Duboisset 8 D Lyle

P Carbonneau (capt) 9 A Nicol (capt)

L Arbizu 10 M Catt

S Carrat 11 A Adebayo

D Venditti 12 P de Glanville

C Lamaison 13 J Guscott

J Carrat 14 I Evans

A Penaud 15 J Callard

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland) Kick-off: 2.30 (Sky Sports 3)

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