Honesty Bath's policy

RUGBY UNION: COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
The Duke of Wellington was not entirely right, after all. Some battles may be won on the privileged open spaces of public school playing fields, but others can be decided just as emphatically in funny little prefabricated huts perched on the edge of two rectangles of mud that only occasionally pass for rugby pitches.

While Bath's face-saving 25-16 victory on Saturday over an almost gratuitously gifted Dax side was realised in front of a Recreation Ground full house enriched by the presence of several hundred Basque supporters, the die was cast some 48 hours earlier in the ramshackle surroundings of Lambridge, a mile and a half down the road.

Lambridge is where the English champions rehearse their moves, hone their physical conditioning and, when things are going wrong, get down to brass tacks and swop a few home truths. Such was the scene last Thursday evening when the tight forwards - the hard men, the hired muscle, the workers at the coal face - shut themselves into a dingy side room for one of their "honesty sessions".

The previous weekend, those self-same forwards - bar Dave Hilton, the Scottish prop, who had not played - were roundly chastised, not least by their manager John Hall, for an insipid performance against Pontypridd. Defeat at Sardis Road had left the club on the verge of the unthinkable, an early exit from the Heineken European Cup competition they had identified as the No 1 priority, and only a victory against Olivier Roumat, Richard Dourthe and company would rescue the situation. Time to sort things out, then.

"We had a real heart-to-heart," said John Mallett, the four-square tighthead prop who found himself in the front line of Saturday's raw, merciless confrontation. "It was cards on the table stuff, us forwards and Hally and no one else. One or two of the backs tried to poke a head around the door to see what all the shouting and arguing was about but we told them to get lost. It was none of their business."

Strong, silent types like Martin Haag, Nigel Redman and Mallett himself had felt hard done by in the aftermath of Pontypridd. "You don't suddenly become a bad unit and we felt there were other factors that should have been taken into consideration," the England front-rower went on. "Having said that, we were perfectly aware of our own shortcomings over there in Wales. By the time we finished our meeting, we were all climbing the walls to get at Dax. We had some reputations to restore."

They were as good as their word. When a truly outstanding side look in danger of falling apart at the seams, the last thing they let slip is their pride; on Saturday, the much-maligned Bath pack were fairly dripping with it.

Dax asked all manner of difficult questions - Roumat was superb in the middle of the lineout and the French front row repeatedly shunted their opponents through the roof of the scrummage before walking over a few exposed limbs on the back of a ferocious second shove from their locks - but the home forwards came up with enough answers to frustrate the visitors and force them on to the wrong side of Bertie Smith, the Irish referee.

With the tight men standing their ground, Steve Ojomoh and Richard Webster were able to subdue and eventually dominate their dangerous opposite numbers, Fabien Pelous and Olivier Magne.

The fact that neither Frenchman lasted the distance bore testimony to the unforgiving nature of the action, but even had they stayed on the field there would have been no denying Webster's prodigious work-rate at close quarters and Ojomoh's thunderous tackling and driving. The Nigerian- born No 8 produced a Test-class performance, and if Jack Rowell is still undecided about his loose combination, he should take another look at his old protege.

For all that, it was a neurotic afternoon amid the Georgian splendour. Dax were the more potent attacking side - one bamboozling move from deep in their own 22 had Try of the Millenium stamped all over it until the umpteenth pass went to ground a couple of metres short of the Bath line. And even though Jon Callard's dead-eye goalkicking kept the home noses in front for all but 12 of the 80 minutes, there was so much potential devastation contained within the visitors' back division that relaxation was never an option.

Dax hit the lead on 16 minutes when Mike Catt's over-ambitious cut-out pass failed to find its target. Ugo Mola, a brilliant wing prospect in the golden tradition of Lagisquet and Ntamack, might have been smithereened had he tried to catch the ball, so instead he wielded his left boot with all the dexterity of a Brazilian midfield maestro, volleyed it on the full and picked up to score at the posts. Dourthe's first penalty goal, midway through the second quarter, made it 10-6 to the Frenchmen and the unease in the crowd was almost palpable.

Enter the Bath midfield, who had been under lock and key from the kick- off. Catt delivered a perfect drop-out to restart the game, Ojomoh provided the necessary oomph, and when Jeremy Guscott's half-break put Callard into space, the full-back delivered an intelligent inside scoring pass to Henry Paul.

From then on it was all about nerve, and Callard, captain for the day and feisty as ever, held his to land penalties either side of the break and another on the hour. When the pain of an injured hip prevented Callard from kicking further, Catt stepped up with 11 minutes remaining to land a 40-metre shot that finally put Bath out of range.

Bath: Try Paul; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 5, Catt. Dax: Try Mola; Conversion Dourthe; Penalties Dourthe 3.

Bath: J Callard (capt; M Perry, 72); J Robinson, H Paul, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, C Harrison; D Hilton, G Adams, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman (B Cusack, 58), R Webster, S Ojomoh, N Thomas.

Dax: R Dourthe; R Mola, P Giordani, F Tauzin, P Labeyrie; F Duberger (J du Bois, 56), J Daret; O Gouaillard, R Ibanez, D Laperne, F Lalanne, O Roumat (capt), O Magne (F Dupleichs, 60), F Pelous (G Norris, 70) R Berek.

Referee: B Smith (Ireland).

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