A cold Bath for Pienaar

Bath 35 Saracens 33
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The Independent Online
In The End it was close but as a debutant's coming out it was hardly a ball for Francois Pienaar. The former South African captain's first taste of Courage League rugby was a bitter one, coming as it did in the hotbed of English club rugby at Bath, and being such a close run thing.

Unfortunately Pienaar - who admitted to one fan afterwards "I nearly died out there it was so cold" - found himself more often on the back foot as Saracens were given a lesson in advanced driving and handling skills throughout an entertaining and ultimately tense encounter, which defending champions Bath had to win after conceding three tries in the last 18 minutes when they had threatened to run away with the match.

Despite the preponderance of forward play, there was rarely a dull moment as both sides attempted to open things up whenever it was practicable, via their talented back rows, on a bitterly cold day.

A team of volunteers had worked in shifts throughout the night to ensure the industrial hot-air blowers did their job under the covers. Even when a chill wind sprang up in the morning the ground retained enough give to convince the referee, Brian Campsall, that the match could go ahead safely. The two captains, Phil de Glanville and Tony Diprose, had already decided that a couple of hours earlier.

Of the overseas stars on display it was Argentinian Frederico Mendez who caught the eye first with great charges, like a Pampas bull, into the thick of the Saracen hordes. A series of driving mauls rewarded the Argentinian hooker with a try after 16 minutes, and Richard Webster followed it up with a touchdown from a similar build up six minutes later.

But the boot of Michael Lynagh kept Saracens in touch until Pienaar, having finally warmed up, began to show a little bit of life. He combined beautifully with another old master, Philippe Sella, to take Saracens surging upfield. Play swung back left across the Recreation Ground to Diprose, then Sella again and finally to the wing Courtney Smith, who easily evaded Jon Sleightholme's attempted tackle and ran over for the try. The pair crossed paths late in the game and again the England wing missed a chance to bring down the exhilarating Canadian.

Pienaar, 30 last Thursday, took a while to get going but eventually his class showed through, notably his ability to make the ball available in the tackle, as well his speed to the breakdown. "I was relatively pleased with my performance," said Pienaar, who captained the Springboks in all 29 of his appearances. "And I was pleasantly surprised at the guts the guys showed. But it was a very hard game and I was very tired. I will need three or four games to reach match fitness and get into the Saracens game-plan and pattern of play."

The game really slipped out of Saracens' grasp early in the second half when they conceded a foolish penalty try for preventing release at a ruck, then saw Jeremy Guscott catching fly-half Rich Butland's perfectly weighted chip on the full to cross over unopposed for his 12th try of the season. Jon Callard converted both, as well as landing a penalty.

Saracens did not give up though and managed tries, first by Diprose, after some good work at a line-out by Tony Copsey, then by Ireland wing Richard Wallace and finally by flanker Gary Clark. The scores heightened the home side's tension but they held out for the last, anxious couple of minutes.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, J Robinson; R Butland, I Sanders; D Hilton (K Yates, 79), F Mendez, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, N Thomas, S Ojomoh, R Webster.

Saracens: M Evans; R Wallace, P Sella, S Ravenscroft, C Smith; M Lynagh, K Bracken; A Olver, G Botterman, P Wallace, P Johns, T Copsey, G Clark, T Diprose (capt), F Pienaar.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)