Bath's surprise demise sets stage for grand finale

Barrie Fairall sees an underpowered Bath lose 11-10 to hand the First Division leadership to Leicester
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The Independent Online
WHILE the vultures hovered low over The Stoop, up in the stratosphere at Sudbury the place was humming as Wasps knocked the champions from their perch to throw open the league title race. However disappointed Bath may have been, to the neutral observer it was just what the season needed after the Five Nations finale.

Having been held to draws by Orrell and Gloucester in their previous two Courage outings, Bath were on the wrong sort of roll when they rolled up here minus so many of their leading lights. And while Wasps held their breath as a Jonathan Callard penalty attempt from half-way whistled down the wind and past the posts, they had just enough collective puff in the final hectic minutes to maintain the narrowest of advantages.

All of which left Leicester top on points difference and Wasps three off the pace going into the last four rounds of matches. A satisfactory situation, then, by way of building to a climax, but not quite so good for the boys from Bath, who, one should note, departed stirred rather than shaken.

Including next weekend's cup semi-final at Harlequins, Bath's objective was summed up in the bluntest of fashions by Brian Ashton. "We just have to win the next five matches," the coach said. Only a Bath man can say this without being greeted by derisive laughter. Indeed, it sounded like an ominous warning to those intent on relieving the West Country giants of their league and cup titles and reading too much into Saturday's reversal.

These champions are never more dangerous than when the chips are down, besides which they are in an angry frame of mind. While there were any number of good reasons for fielding a weakened side here, not among them was Victor Ubogu, the England prop, making a late decision to travel to Hong Kong on business.

John Hall, who was resting a knee injury, had already expressed strong opinions on the subject and Phil de Glanville, leading the side against Wasps in his absence, backed up the feelings at the club when he said: "The players feel let down and we have made our views very clear to Victor. You don't do what he did to Bath." Ubogu may wish he hadn't when he hears news of the side selected for the trip to The Stoop.

Meanwhile, Wasps could bask in victory. And how tense it was, Rob Andrew apparently having left his kicking boots in England's dressing-room at Twickenham. Down wind in the first half, he missed two of three penalty attempts before a big drive by Paddy Dunston resulted in a streaky try for Matt Greenwood.

But they all count and Andrew completed his side's scoring with a second penalty four minutes after the break. It was then a question of hanging on as Bath began to rumble, Callard landing a penalty and then converting Richard Butland's try on the hour following a stunning break down the right by Mike Catt.

Bath's first league defeat since November 1993, ended in a succession of Wasps scrums. Dean Ryan, leading the Londoners by example from No 8 to only their third Courage win over their visitors, happily confessed that by then they had run out of ideas. "This is a huge boost," he said. So, too, was the fact that Wasps whitewashed Bath at all four levels on Saturday.

Wasps: Try Greenwood; Penalties Andrew 2. Bath: Try Buckland; Conversion Callard; Penalty Callard.

Wasps: J Ufton; P Hopley, D Hopley, G Childs, S Roiser; R Andrew, S Bates; N Popplewell, K Dunn, I Dunston, M Greenwood, N Hadley, L Dallaglio, D Ryan (capt), M White.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), M Catt, S Geoghegan; R Butland, I Sanders; K Yates, G Adams, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, B Clarke, E Peters.

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland).

n Saracens secured the one promotion place to the First Division when, despite fielding a much weakened team at short notice, they overcame Nottingham 32-7 at Southgate.