Power and a penalty

Geoffrey Nicholson witnesses a legalistic finale to rugby's contentious season
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The Independent Online
It was fitting that the epitaph on such a contentious season in the rugby boardrooms should have been a naked power struggle in the Pilkington Cup final in which most of the more agreeable features of the game were ignored. Also that it should have been settled in Bath's favour, only a couple of minutes from the close, by a penalty try, the most legalistic of decisions.

The referee, Steve Lander, seemed to have no option: Leicester had three times gone over the top at rucks in trying to defend their line. But the taste left by the unhappy necessity of the verdict was made all the more bitter when Lander dropped to the ground as the teams walked off. Whether the push was deliberate is another legal question left hanging in the air.

Until those closing moments, any unattached spectators, if such animals exist, would probably have been rooting for Leicester. They had outplayed the favourites, and for all but five minutes on either side of the interval had narrowly out-scored them too. John Hall, the director of rugby at Bath, had written in the programme: "It's our cup. Nobody else's. It's ours. That's the attitude we have at Bath." Maybe, but it is boasts like that which are giving professional rugby a poor name.

Have we been victims of a hype in which Leicester are depicted as some sort of centripetal force, perpetually turning the ball inward to Dean Richards at the still centre of the action, while Bath are centrifugal, spinning the ball out in all directions? There may be some truth in the first, though Richards has not quite been turned to granite. But the rumours that Bath play an exciting, free-flowing game are rather harder to stand up. Either that, or I've been plain unlucky whenever I've come to watch them. Stuffing the opposing pack has always seemed their first priority.

The stereotypes did not begin to match the reality in the opening half hour. It was Bath who looked the ponderous side and Leicester who provided the first light relief in which an opening driven through by a mobile prop, Darren Garforth, set up Niall Malone, the Irish stand-off, to make a circling run to the posts. We were never again to see the line crossed by a man on the run, even though Leicester scored a second try through Matt Poole.

The succession of place- kicks missed and converted were punctuated only by a drop goal by Mike Catt, and could have decided this competition either way as they did the championship - yet there was no argument that Leicester were the more dynamic force. The match was played in a mean- spirited way, with both front rows lectured for impeding the scrummage, and endless professional fouls.

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