FOR a full hour of mighty struggle, Harlequins clung to their dream of reclaiming what they see as their rightful place at the pinnacle of English rugby. They were two tries ahead against the top club and apparently marching towards their sixth straight league victory.
Then the Bath avalanche hit them. Three scorching tries and a couple of nonchalant dropped goals shattered Quins' pretensions to parity with the very best. After the game, Dick Best, the Quins coach, said: "They were brutally effective. It's the first time for quite a while that we've had a juggernaut coming towards us. They were ruthless. They are the best by a long way."
It was no more than the truth. Bath had shown their supreme ability to think their way out of trouble. From the start, Quins had come at them ferociously. They had shown determination and, above all, self-belief. It initially secured them lots of lineout ball, with a rampant back row providing material for the half-backs to use.
This pair, the scrum-half Rob Kitchin and Paul Challinor outside him, soon put a couple of tries on the board. Kitchin crossed first to benefit from a bad missed tackle, and Challinor followed after the backs had swept the ball three-quarters of the field in a spectacular handling movement. A conversion and a penalty from Challinor laid what might have been a secure foundation for victory.
Secure, that is, against any side without Bath's powers of demolition. The league leaders simply took stock and re-grouped, particularly in the line-out where they cut off Quins' possession. They intensified the pressure on the front five and clicked up a gear.
The backs were well able to capitalise on the possession. The full-back, Jon Callard, stroked over six penalties and converted a try from Jeremy Guscott. Guscott's co-centre, Phil de Glanville, and winger, Jon Sleightholme, got the other two Bath tries. Outside-half Mike Catt and scrum-half Andy Nicol dropped a goal apiece to rub salt in the Harlequins' wounds.
John Hall, the Bath manager, acclaimed his side's 32-point winning burst as "the best half of rugby we have played all season. We have been building up to this sort of display since the squad got back together after the Five Nations. I am exceptionally pleased.
"There is euphoria in the dressing room now, but we have different challenges in three away matches against Gloucester, Saracens and Orrell."
But Harlequins can take heart as well. A year ago, the Quins were thinking the unthinkable and contemplating relegation from the top flight of English rugby. Yesterday, they showed they may well survive again with the very best.
Mick Watson is one essential, massive difference. Jim Staples at full- back is another, in defence and attack. The half-backs have an added verve and confidence.
But above all, the whole side played with passion and self-belief. Last year, Chris Sheasby alone seemed ravenous for victory. This year, everybody round him shares the hunger.
The trouble for Quins is that hunger alone is not enough to devour Bath.
Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; K Yates, G Dawe, J Mallett, N Redman, M Haag, A Robinson, S Ojomoh, E Peters.
Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, W Greenwood, P Mensah, S Bromley; P Challinor (C Wright, 70), R Kitchin; J Leonard (capt), S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, S Thresher, G Allison (C Sheasby, 45), R Jenkins, M Watson.
Referee: JJ Pearson (Middlesbrough).Reuse content