Bath's young generation promise a new dynasty

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The Independent Online
Someone, somewhere has been putting it about that Bath are either on the slide or in crisis. Crisis? What crisis? "Let's put the record straight," John Hall, their captain, said. "We are top of the league. We are in the Pilkington Cup final. We are playing the best rugby we've played this season. There is nothing wrong at the Recreation Ground. We are on top of the world."

Anyone who witnessed Bath's 53-17 destruction of West Hartlepool would readily concur. No First Division win since 14 January, draws with Orrell and Gloucester followed by a defeat at Wasps, may represent a run of unprecedented mediocrity by the champions but the way they dispatched Harlequins from the cup and now West reflects a return to form at the very moment it matters most. Typical Bath, really.

But in any case, if ever a club deserved a season of taking-stock and consolidation it is Bath in 1994-95, so the trophies they now go on to accrue can be perceived as a gilt-edged bonus. A change in coaching regime post-Rowell and the retirement of Stuart Barnes, plus as we go through April the detrimental demands of England, persuaded some of us that just for this season Bath might end up with nothing. This would not have been a crisis.

Instead, they are back on their course towards a second successive cup- and-league double, having regenerated and turned the absence of all those World Cup players into a positive benefit. The team who trounced West Hartlepool at the Rec may not greatly resemble the one who will play at Leicester in next Saturday's Courage Clubs' Championship decider but they gave a warning - ominous to all the rest - that Bath's future is already assured.

This is the sort of crisis West Hartlepool would willingly endure. "If they can replace six or seven players of that quality and give a performance like that, the title is evidently going to be theirs," Paul Hodder, the West captain, said, drawing a one-sided comparison with his side's 12- 6 defeat by Leicester a fortnight earlier.

In fact Bath had very nearly an entire team of internationals missing and the World Cup participants who did play contributed in accordance with their elevated status, Victor Ubogu re-establishing a rapport with both team-mates and supporters and Philip de Glanville performing with quite sensational perspicacity and daring.

The game was won with tries by Audley Lumsden, Adedayo Adebayo and Gareth Adams in the first half and, though West almost matched Bath try for try in the second half, they had the unfortunate knack of conceding one every time they scored one. Thus Steve Cook was instantly followed by de Glanville, Anthony Elwine by Ubogu and Alan Brown by Adebayo with Lumsden adding his second in between.

Given that Bath were out-penalised 31-11, it was yet further testimony to their attacking capacity that they should have scored seven tries and had opportunities for another five or six. Ashley Rowden, of Earley, near Reading, informed the players fortissimo why he was making each decision and, for the most part, they remained none the wiser.

Even so, it was heady, perfectly timeous stuff which built a big enough score for Bath to overtake Leicester and go to Welford Road with a points- difference superiority of 10. On the other hand, it has left West so parlously placed that after Northampton's precious victory the concluding match of the season between these bottom clubs is as likely to determine relegation as the Leicester-Bath match is the title.

"The pressure has been off because not many people have been talking about West Hartlepool; it's all been Harlequins and Northampton," Hodder said. "But it's back on us now and that's going to make it much harder." West are condemned by an away record which shows not a single win and the worst defence in the First Division, but their splendid rugby has been an adornment to this level and they deserve a second chance rather than the Second Division.

That said, Bath are metaphorically in a different league, partly because of the simple fact of their experience at playing these high-pressure matches. "We need a couple of seasons to get the knowledge of being in the First Division," Hodder said. And they could also do without the Rugby Football Union's questionable attempt to restrict the numbers of non-Englishmen playing in the English game.

If the RFU proceeds, it should finally add the prefix "English" to its appellation. It should take it as a considerable compliment that sundry Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen - of some distinction, moreover - should wish to move in.

West have been finding Scotland a fruitful recruiting ground and Bath have a coterie of Scots, mostly English-born and -bred just like Simon Geoghegan of Ireland.

Hodder, as it happens, is a New Zealander from Hamilton, Waikato, but no one can touch him because, as he puts it, he has an "English" passport.

Actually, it is a British passport, the same as is held by the likes of Rob Wainwright, Geoghegan, Ieuan Evans, the Bristol butcher Dave Hilton and all the rest.

This does not sound as if it would stand up in a court of law - which is precisely where Bath have been threatening to go.

Saturday's evidence suggests they could manage very well with Englishmen, since none of the XV who beat West Hartlepool is in any way tainted by Celtic association, unless you count the Cornish scrum-half Ian Sanders, Adams because his name is Gareth and the uncomfortable reality that Nigel Redman was born in Cardiff and, poor chap, still supports Cardiff City.

Bath: Tries Lumsden 2, Adebayo 2, Adams, de Glanville, Ubogu; Conversions Butland 6; Penalties Butland 2. West Hartlepool: Tries Cook, Elwine, Brown; Conversion Oliphant.

Bath: A Lumsden; A Swift, P de Glanville, A Adebayo, J Sleightholme; R Butland, I Sanders; K Yates, G Adams, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, E Pearce, J Hall (capt), A Robinson.

West Hartlepool: K Oliphant; O Evans, A Elwine, P Hodder (capt), S Jones; A Parker, S Cook; P Lancaster, T Herbert, P Beal, J Dixon, K Westgarth (J Whittaker, 33-35), P Evans, T Jaques, A Brown.

Referee: A Rowden (Reading).