Bath's feast turns to famine

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
Brian Ashton's decision to quit his coaching post at Bath a week ago may have been painful, but at least it spared him the far greater agony of falling on his sword today. Had he still been around to watch his precious all-international back division fiddle and fumble their way into self-imposed oblivion at The Stoop on Saturday, sheer embarrassment would have persuaded him to leave a Dear John letter on the dashboard of the team bus and sneak back home to deepest Somerset wearing a heavy disguise.

Quite how the champions contrived to lose to Harlequins for the first time in more than a decade - indeed their 22-6 defeat was their heaviest in 10 years of league rugby - will remain one of the mysteries of the age. Their domination of possession and territory was almost as effortless as it was complete, but no amount of ball could compensate for the fact that Phil de Glanville's thoroughbred three-quarters had somehow deteriorated from the consummate to the constipated in the space of four short weeks.

A month ago De Glanville and Jeremy Guscott served up a feast of fluent, attacking rugby to draw the sting from the Londoners in a classic encounter at the Recreation Ground. This time the Bath backs had less of the Raymond Blanc about them and rather more of the Keith Floyd: the almost comical mixture of hiccups and cock-ups meant John Hall and the rest of the West Country hierarchy were in dire need of a stiff drink or two well before the final whistle.

Hall, the Bath team manager, did raise a smile afterwards - no mean achievement given recent personal and professional traumas - but it was more a result of Leicester's defeat at Northampton, which just about kept the door open, than any silver lining he might have detected in his own side's performance.

"It's not looking good for us, but the league is wide open and with the programme only half over there is a lot of rugby left to play," he said. "I keep on coming out with this line, that if we win our matches from here on in we'll be there or thereabouts. Of course, that winning run was meant to start against Quins but they defended magnificently when we turned the screw and we failed to take any of the six or seven clear chances we created."

Six or seven was putting it a bit high, given the game's depressing absence of creative spark, but the visitors certainly allowed two wonderful opportunities to slip away in a crucial spell after half-time. First, Mike Catt threw what should have been a scoring delivery behind Jason Robinson's back - in fairness to the beleaguered England outside-half, his unorthodox partner from Wigan appeared guilty of over-running.

That error was compounded 12 minutes later when Richard Butland, temporarily filling in for the wounded De Glanville, failed to hold a pass from Andy Nicol with the line at his mercy. "Had we scored on either occasion, we would have won the game," Hall asserted.

No one was inclined to disagree, least of all Dick Best, the Quins coach, who was profoundly but happily bemused at the way events had turned in his favour. "We've set our stall out all season to play fast, expansive rugby, but we simply didn't have the ball with which to do it on this occasion," he admitted. "Bath played most of the rugby out there, if not all of it."

Best is nothing if not honest, and judging by the way Quins defended on Saturday - and they were in no position to do much else - some of that honesty has finally rubbed off on his players.

There was no sign of the spineless posturing that betrayed the Londoners against Leicester a fortnight or so back. Laurent Cabannes may have been unusually clumsy in the handling department, but he gave everything in the tackle, and whenever Steve Ojomoh or Federico Mendez threatened to make telling ground in the loose, they found the inspired flanker from Reims standing four-square in their path.

It was a second Frenchman, Thierry Lacroix, who made the other decisive contribution. Ignoring his dodgy right ankle - "he was playing on one leg, which explains some of his missed touches," revealed Best - the new outside-half continued where he had left off against Wasps six days previously by landing four important penalties to open up a 12-6 advantage by the 56th minute.

That lead was stretched to nine points on 72 minutes when, under the greatest imaginable pressure from the Bath back-row, Lacroix sent a half- hit, left-footed drop goal stumbling drunkenly between the sticks. His conversion of Jim Staples' late try, instigated by Cabannes down the left touchline, was mere icing on the cake.

So the most open title race in the brief but hitherto predictable history of the Courage Championship continues its twists and turns. Both Hall and Best have now revised their early-season opinion that no side could lose more than three matches and still hope to lay a hand on the silverware: rugby's equivalent of the two-party state, Bath and Leicester, has finally been swept away by the invigorating rush of professionalism.

Which is not to say that Bath, with six titles in nine years, will not make it seven once they put Ashton's departure behind them and rediscover a sense of common purpose. "They remain an awesome side and you write them off at your peril," said Best, by way of preparing the rest of the First Division for the inevitable backlash.

But De Glanville's men are going to have to dig very, very, deep if they are to extricate themselves from this particular rats' alley. It will be fascinating watching them try.

Harlequins: Try Staples; Conversion Lacroix; Penalties Lacroix 4; Drop goal Lacroix. Bath: Penalties Callard 2.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, R Paul, W Carling, D Luger; T Lacroix, H Harries; L Benezech, K Wood, J Leonard (capt), G Llewellyn, M Watson, R Jenkins, B Davidson, L Cabannes.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, J Robinson; M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, F Mendez, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, E Peters, S Ojomoh, N Thomas.

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).