Guscott sidesteps Bath's tangled web

Bath 33 London Irish 0
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The Independent Online
Once upon a time there was a weekend pastime and character-making school sport called rugby. Then money seeded itself and spread its roots. Now it is a tangled mess of a game, and no more so than at Bath. If it has been a bumpy ride on the field with an unthought-of exit from the Heineken European Cup and a string of defeats in the league, that is nothing to what has been happening off it.

The club's coach, Brian Ashton, is on paid leave of absence for a second week, pending talks with the club's management about his role and responsibilities, while their director of rugby, John Hall, has been remanded on police bail in connection with an alleged incident in a city bar recently.

But things finally have taken a positive turn at the Recreation Ground. Firstly the senior players held a meeting last week at which they gave their unanimous support for Ashton; they want him back.

Since it was effectively player power which originally got Hall appointed as team manager, there is every chance that the majority wish will carry the day again. And indeed Hall was optimistic about the outcome of the Ashton situation. "Brian is still a part of this club and he will be after next week," insisted the former England back-row man.

He was less forthcoming about persistent rumours that when hooker Frederico Mendez returns after Christmas he will be accompanied by another Argentina international, lock German Llanes. According to Hall, Bath have made no approaches to the player or a representative of the second-row forward.

But if reports are true that the England A prop Kevin Yates and hooker Neil McCarthy could be going on loan to Bedford after Christmas, then that would suggest that Bath are trying to reduce their overall wage bill to accommodate a signing of the stature of the giant Llanes.

While Bath, coached meanwhile by the triumvirate of Andy Robinson, Jon Callard and Hall, dogged it out at the start of their defence of the Pilkington Cup - a trophy they have held 10 times already - with a gutsy but ultimately outclassed London Irish, Ashton was out walking his dogs near his Bruton home.

He did not miss much. It was no classic. The bitter cold did not help but Bath were also hindered by a lengthy injury list, which included captain Phil de Glanville, outside-half Mike Catt and their England colleague, the wing Adedayo Adebayo.

The forwards put up a reasonable show, with some fine driving early and late in the game, but sadly in between the Exiles were allowed too much room and time; pressure was applied which saw Bath pinned in their own 22 for periods with no apparent idea as to how they lift the siege.

Thankfully, if the match was a glimpse of rugby past then youngster Matt Perry, in for De Glanville, gave fans a glimpse of Bath's future with a fine all-round performance topped with a well-taken try from a brilliant move.

Of course, Perry had the perfect tutor, playing as he was alongside the peerless Jeremy Guscott. Everything the England centre did was flawless. In defence he is uncompromising; in thought he is yards ahead of everyone; on foot he is still too fast for too many people's liking.

His career is nowhere over, as many have claimed; in fact he looks to be getting better by the match. It was no surprise that he scored a hat- trick of tries. His contribution was what lifted the match out of a well of mediocrity and brought it closer to what Bath and their public expect.

There is still a way to go. Ashton was missed, and no doubt he missed Bath. The quicker the pair are reunited the better for Bath and for the game.

Bath: Tries Sleightholme, Perry, Guscott 3; Conversions Callard 4.

Bath: J Callard; J Robinson, M Perry, J Guscott, J Sleightholme; R Butland, I Sanders; D Hilton (J Mallett, 79), G French, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, N Thomas, D Lyle, S Ojomoh.

London Irish; C O'Shea; N Woods, R Henderson, P Flood, J Bishop; S Burns, P Richards; L Mooney, R Kellam, G Halpin, M O'Kelly, J Davidson, K O'Connell, K Dawson, B Walsh.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).