Rugby Union: two teams joined at the hip

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The Independent Online
Bath and Brive, Brive and Bath. Two quintessential rugby communities, two fiercely independent islands of 15-man endeavour where the glory has everything to do with the winning and nothing to do with the taking part. Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, is fond of remarking that in terms of style and philosophy, his club is far closer to the best French sides than to any rival outfit in the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

The Heineken Cup finalists share so many similarities that they might as well be joined at the hip; if all the available data were to be fed into a rugby-sensitive computer, it would find it difficult to predict anything other than a draw this afternoon. The parallels run far deeper than the fact that they have beaten each other in this season's tournament and are led by shrewd, physical Test scrum-halves who, for all their grit and occasional grandeur, have flattered to deceive at the very highest level.

Can the corollaries that exist between today's combatants be passed off as pure chance, or is there a common mindset at work? A glance at the evidence suggests something more than coincidence.

The "Get Your Hands Off Our Trophy" syndrome: When Bath won the John Player Cup for the first time in 1984 they enjoyed the experience so much that they refused to relinquish the trophy for another four years. They went on to win it again in 1989 and made five successful visits in the 90s, prompting John Hall, then director of rugby, to say: "This is our trophy. No one else's. It's ours."

Brive are developing a similarly possessive attitude towards the Heineken Cup. They have lost only one European match in two seasons - to Bath last October - and like the West Countrymen, they have a habit of winning games in the final seconds. "We consider the Heineken Cup to be our property," said Laurent Seigne, their coach. Does that comment ring any bells?

The "Nice Backs, Shame About The Pack" syndrome: It is a bitter irony that while both sides can boast back divisions to die for, neither has a ball-winning pack to provide the ammunition. When Brive played Toulouse in last month's semi-final, their forwards spent all afternoon in reverse. They were out-scrummaged, out-mauled, out-rucked and out-driven. Yet the diamonds outside were sharp enough to score a fabulous last-minute try to take the game into extra time.

Bath know all about that sort of seat-of-the-pants rugby. They too are lightweight up front, but they possess the backs to win games on starvation rations. In the 1996 Pilkington Cup final against Leicester, they were throttled by an inspired Tigers eight. Step forward Phil de Glanville who orchestrated a remarkable length-of-the-field injury time raid that led directly to the winning penalty try.

The "Nobody Knows The Trouble We've Seen" syndrome: If any further proof were needed of the relationship between the clubs look no further than their disciplinary records. Last season, Bath celebrated a victory over Harlequins with such unbridled vigour that the local constabulary were obliged to pay them a visit. And this season? Simon Fenn's half-eaten earlobe has landed Bath in the dock once more.

Brive's problems have been equally well-documented. Their infamous one- in, all-in fight with Pontypridd at Le Parc Municipal des Sports was comfortably outpointed in the notoriety stakes by a second dust-up in Le Bar Toulzac. Truly, the path to cup glory is steep and rocky.

- Chris Hewett

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