Bath mystified by fallibility

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The Independent Online
How singular that a single result - Leicester's 15-14 win at Bath - could make such a difference, because until last season we would all have told ourselves confidently that Bath would use temporary adversity as the most powerful stimulus.

Now we do not quite know. The Tigers prevailed on yet another dank day at the Rec because they were comfortably the more efficient at playing rugby in keeping with the rain and mud of midwinter. That much we did know, or could easily have worked out, before they ever came to the Georgian City.

Indeed Leicester's victory still leaves Bath two points, and a points- difference advantage of 64, ahead. Like Leicester, the other leading opponents, notably Wasps and Harlequins, have still to visit and with seven games to go it remains Bath rather than Leicester who would attract the smartest money.

And yet. It was precisely at this stage of last season, with the Five Nations' Championship upon them, that they faltered as they had not since Leicester won the inaugural league title and Bath finished an ignominious (for them) fourth in 1987-88.

As Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, had forcibly reminded his players beforehand and Tony Russ, Leicester's rugby director, repeated afterwards, Bath dropped eight of the 14 points available to them in last season's seven-match run-in. A repeat, we may be certain, would allow the Courage trophy to stay at Welford Road.

Given that Bath had won their first 10 First Division fixtures, most of the ones at the Recreation Ground with ample to spare, it may seem somewhat fickle now to focus on their fallibility. But then this defeat by Leicester was the product of an alarmingly, unwontedly fallible performance.

Even if it seems hyper-critical to say so on the strength of one defeat in 11, hyperself-critical is how Bath are of themselves and John Hall, their critical manager, was baffled that they should have strayed so far from their pre-match planning. "We played the wrong game," he said.

By this he meant, believe it or not, that they kept it too tight on the mud which was underfoot from the start and even in the downpour with which the match concluded. Bath have talked a great deal of late about a non- kicking game, or lesser variations of it suitable for inclement weather, but here they did not know how far they dared go.

"The conditions suited a Leicester type of game rather than a Bath type of game," Hall said, in a statement of the obvious worth making because his players had tended to kick towards touch when they had planned to kick into spaces and perversely to run the ball too often smack into the Leicester pack, who happen to be the mightiest maulers in English rugby.

The kicking waywardness played to one of the Tigers' great strengths, the line-out and specifically the magisterial Martin Johnson, and in running into trouble Bath compounded the felony by persistently losing possession in the tackle. "I'd like to think if we'd won as much turnover ball as them we would have got some points," Hall said sardonically.

That said, on this occasion it was idle to complain. Leicester's players and coaches have been unhappy at what they see as media antagonism towards them for habitually playing to their strengths but, whatever the false expectations that have been raised among the same media by the same coaches, the simple fact of coming to Bath and winning was its own justification.

"It wasn't pretty but it was exactly how we planned to play the game," Russ noted, and in his support you have to remember that this was only the fourth home defeat Bath have experienced in all the nine seasons of the Courage Clubs' Championship, not to mention the first by Leicester.

It is probably fair to add that, had the opposition been anyone but the Tigers, they would not have been capable of such swift and effective recovery after Bath's sensational start. No sooner had Martin Haag received Jez Harris's kick-off than they were scoring a try of the sheerest brilliance, abetted by John Liley's bad miss of the scorer Adedayo Adebayo.

Thirty-four seconds had elapsed as the ball continued from Haag through Catt, Clarke, Ubogu, Sanders, Catt again, De Glanville and finally Jeremy Guscott, whose exquisite pass took out Wayne Kilford and freed Adebayo on the outside 65 yards out with only Liley lying ahead.

Bath would immediately have had a second had another breathtaking combination of forwards and backs not faltered when Ben Clarke put his head down with either Guscott or Adebayo likely to have scored if he had passed. But it scarcely seemed to matter when Jonathan Callard's penalty put them eight points up after five minutes.

In such an emergency Dean Richards is unsurpassed. The Leicester captain, whose England exclusion Russ cannot begin to comprehend, roused his men by exhortation and omnipresent personal example. And though the fractious early exchanges brought lectures, not least for Johnson, and ultimately a yellow card for Darren Garforth, they also brought four penalties by way of restitution from Liley.

Callard's second penalty brought it back to 11-12 at half-time but Bath failed to exploit the intensifying second-half wind and, further penalties first by Liley and then Callard apart, it was Leicester who went nearest when Richards tumbled across the line only to be denied for a forward pass evident only from the closest of quarters.

In fact towards the end Leicester survived surprisingly well, leaving them having to win their remaining seven games but also seek the favour of others. As Russ put it: "We have to look for some help from our First Division colleagues." This season, however, one imagines the colleagues will not be so obliging.

Bath: Try Adebayo; Penalties Callard 3. Leicester: Penalties Liley 5.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, I Sanders; D Crompton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Leicester: J Liley; W Kilford, R Robinson, P Delaney, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).