Rugby Union: A new high for the Rec crew

Andrew Longmore joins the West Stand faithful as a rugby giant resurrects itself
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The Independent Online
The pundits at the back of the West Stand might have to be relocated if Tony Swift and his accountants get their way. But, for the moment, they are alive and well and in full voice, even if the accommodation in Row R is fit only for scrum-halves. It would be a shame if the Rec was steamrollered in the interests of the bank balance. Stand in the middle as night begins to fall and the lights of the houses twinkle in the dusk. It is like playing in the streets. Only at the Rec do you aim a penalty kick at a kitchen window.

The West Stand had a firm view on this semi-final. Like Stalin's Russia, last week's bad news had already been reinterpreted. A 50-point defeat by Saracens at Watford's Vicarage Road was merely a wake-up call for the infinitely more critical rendezvous with the French, a barely discernible blip on the Bath graph. Confidence in the West Stand was unshaken. "They'll win today," nodded the prop forward squeezed into seat eight. "Match 'em for an hour, then they'll pull away. You'll see." If only it had been that easy.

But no one could hide, wanted to hide; this was one of those D-Days which creep up on even the mightiest of clubs. In the good old amateur days, defeat was a few feet short of world's end. Not in these hard-nosed professional times.

"That was the worst hiding we've ever suffered," Jonathan Callard, the Bath full-back, said of their humiliation at Saracens. "The scar will stay with us forever." On Monday, the players had received a stark ultimatum from their coach. In short, the options were shape up or ship out. "We set certain criteria for the players and we fell short of that last week," Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, said. Bath, the Liverpool of rugby, the epitome of all-for-one, lacked teamwork and commitment. "The pressure came from the players," added Callard. "It came from within. It was a question of controlling the determination of the players to prove everyone wrong. I think we did that today."

In years to come, this will be viewed as a famous afternoon, more than just victory in a Heineken European Cup semi-final. Defeat in a final. Well, at least we enjoyed the day. Defeat in the semi-final? Any athlete will tell you that is the worst.

Under enormous pressure - and not actually playing especially well - Bath had to dig very deep and, for those few hectic final minutes, when Pau were trying to run from every angle and only a series of desperate tackles kept the elusive French runners at bay, the players found reserves they had not unearthed for a year or two.

During the week, their chief executive Tony Swift had outlined a bleak future for the most successful English club in history if no new transfusion of revenue was found for the expenditure haemorrhage. A new ground was the main requirement, he said. A European Cup final will keep patron Andrew Brownsword sweet for a few more months at least.

The course of the game could be tracked through the raucous cries of the West Stand regulars. The staple fare - "Come on you Bath boys" - uttered in a baritone worthy of the timpany department of the London Philharmonic slowly disintegrated into frantic individual exhortations. "Well done, Dan lad." It was that type of game, a match of pressure and penalties - five by Callard, three by David Aucagne - the sort of match they don't often make any more. "Maybe it wasn't a great spectacle," Andy Nicol, the Bath captain, admitted. "But it was a very intense match and the best atmosphere we've had at the Rec for a long time."

Fears for more mayhem in the wake of the European bloodbaths at Brive v Pontypridd and Pau v Llanelli proved mercifully unfounded. Part of that was due to the authority of Derek Bevan, the referee, part to the discipline of the players. "I admired very much the rigour of Bath's methods and the efforts of their players," concluded the Pau coach, Jean-Luis Luneau. Rigour and mighty effort? The Bath tradition lives on, to Bordeaux and the final at the end of next month. Come on, you Bath boys.