Fear is the spur for Bath

Pilkington Cup final: Holders are motivated by an irresistible challenge while the underdogs put faith in a running game
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The Independent Online
OVER the years of grinding league and Cup matches, it is not so much the prospect of victory as the fear of defeat which has motivated Bath and sustained them through many of their most arduous challenges. And if for no other reason than the fact that they have painstakingly built up this bank of experience, unrivalled anywhere in competitive club rugby, they are once again favourites to win the Cup for the ninth time at Twickenham on Saturday. The fear factor cannot be underestimated and against Wasps, Bath will be more acutely sensitive to it than at any time during their decade of domination.

Their Courage League campaign has been littered with close calls, scrambled saves and lucky breaks. That they have required such good fortune, and in such large measure, raises questions over their current state of health and future prosperity. It is not simply that the standard in the First Division this season has been higher than at any other time during the league's existence. True, it has been intensely competitive and the gap between the clubs at the top and those at the bottom has undeniably closed but not sufficiently to explain Bath's faltering progress and their relinquishing of the title to Leicester.

Seldom have they overwhelmed opponents in the manner of past seasons. There is no doubt that they have badly missed the authority at half-back provided for so long by Richard Hill and Stuart Barnes. Any side would, of course, find it impossible to satisfactorily plug the gaping holes left by these two, but Mike Catt's failure to come through as a convincing successor to Barnes and his subsequent blossoming as an international full-back of the highest calibre has undoubtedly caused problems. They have also been beset by injury; Andy Nicol's season has been wiped out and so has Andy Reed's.

But so often in the past Bath have never been so dangerous as when they are cast in the role of underdogs. To them, it is not the lifting of a burden but a gross insult. Furthermore, there is the powerful motive of revenge. The defeat by Wasps in the league was a dreadful blow to their pride as well as being the point at which their championship challenge faded from expectation to mere hope.

Even in their defeat at the Recreation Ground earlier in the season, Wasps proved to be infuriatingly awkward opponents and could with better luck and a steadier nerve have won. There were signs that day, as there have been on a number of occasions since, of frailty up front, particularly in the Bath scrummage where Darren Molloy gave his opposite number at prop, John Mallett, an extremely uncomfortable afternoon.

It is more than likely that Molloy will be chosen ahead of Gary Holmes for the loose head position which has been so robustly anchored during the season by Nick Popplewell. The Irishman's absence on national service against Italy next Saturday is a savage blow to Wasps and infinitely more crucial than the loss of Simon Geoghegan to Bath. No side beats both Bath and Leicester without an exceptional pack of forwards and Popplewell's part in Wasps' success over both sides this season has been enormous.

So has Norm Hadley's and, by harnessing him with Matt Greenwood in the second row for so much of the season, Wasps have given themselves ample room for manoeuvre. Greenwood is the probable choice to partner the Canadian again in the Cup final but whether Wasps will dare display the daring abandon which illuminated the early part of the season is another matter. They have created a try-scoring record in the league, albeit in a season in which more matches have been played, and they have quality control at half-back with Rob Andrew and Steve Bates.

In addition, they have the zest and power further out to indulge their passion if the opportunities arise. Yet, with a couple of gloriously uninhibited exceptions, Cup finals are not occasions for reckless adventure.

Bath, despite their tendency to malfunction in the league, are still a team for the major occasion. Their players flourish on the big stage where so many of them spend so much time. Their pack may not be as awesomely obdurate and their half-backs may lack authority. They are a side in transition coming to terms with the absence of several influential players, the loss of Jack Rowell, their most powerful motivational force, and the imminent departure of two of their most loyal and trusted comrades, John Hall and Tony Swift. For a side as cussedly determined as Bath, this is surely the most irresistible challenge for years.