Rugby Union: Back's forward mastery plugs Bath

Leicester 36 Bath 13
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The Independent Online
"THERE ARE no problems, only solutions," pronounced Andy Robinson early last week. Oh yeah? Unless Bath find themselves something resembling an open-side flanker in the very near future - within the next half an hour would be as good a time as any - their title aspirations will continue to carry all the credibility of a Ron Davies explanation. They have been searching high, low, and unsuccessfully for this apparently elusive specimen since Robbo himself retired from active service, and their failure threatens to hasten an ignominious retreat to the back benches of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

They could, of course, hire Mossad to kidnap Neil Back for them, but the little blighter would probably sell the entire commando unit a dinky little sidestep and disappear under the nearest set of posts. By blowing the West Countrymen clean out of Welford Road on Saturday, Leicester's favourite bundle of plutonium-enriched energy left the Bath coach searching for superlatives amongst the debris of his own game plan. "Neil's game is close to perfection," agreed Robinson, and, judging by the distant look in his eyes, he would happily forfeit both arms and his weaker leg if it meant bringing a breakaway of commensurate quality to the Recreation Ground.

The irony of the situation will not have been lost on Jon Preston, the multi-faceted New Zealander lured across the time zones to bring authority and stability to Bath's back division. Preston spent last season at Wellington under the guidance of Graham Mourie, as influential an open side as there has ever been, and knows from first-hand All Black experience how special No 7s like Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld go about their work.

Under the circumstances, his inexplicable confinement to the replacements' bench must have come as a blessed relief. Robinson has tried both Russell Earnshaw and Nathan Thomas in the problem position and needs no one to tell him that the former is too upright and the latter too ordinary.

He would love to get his gnarled mitts on Martyn Williams of Wales, but Pontypridd's prime mover and shaker, creative and destructive in equal measure, is currently held under contractual lock and key by his national union. "I can't deny that we're looking at an area of weakness here," said the coach. "It needs addressing."

While Robinson disappeared into in one of those trademark private fumes of his, one old coaching partner must have been celebrating the realisation that there is indeed a God. Clive Woodward's England outfit may spend this Saturday on turkey-shoot duty against the Dutch but the remainder of their pre-Christmas programme is severe indeed and the re-emergence of Will Greenwood as a centre of genuine world class could not be more timely.

It was not simply that he scored twice in the opening seven minutes to render Bath utterly incapable of distinguishing their unmentionables from their elbows, although a cautious man would advise Greenwood to retire now on the grounds that if he plays until he drops, he will never even approach the classicism of his second try.

From Woodward's point of view - and with the World Cup less than a year away, his is the only point of view that really matters - there was a snap, a hunger, and a consistency about the play of his favourite inside centre that was patently missing for much of last season. "If you can't get yourself up for a Leicester-Bath game in front of 16,000 at Welford Road, you've got trouble," said Greenwood, who not only missed the summer tour of the southern hemisphere (smart move) but had played next to no rugby this term because of shoulder and ankle problems.

"It's not a matter of holding back your return to coincide with an England Test. When you've been injured, and missed a chunk of the season, and seen other players fill your shirt proudly and effectively, you just want to get back amongst your mates and put in a big one. Contrary to what people say, an England Test in November doesn't much concern someone struggling with injury in September. This was all about us beating Bath, nothing else."

None of which will prevent Woodward placing Saturday's events in an England context, especially as Jeremy Guscott, the other 50 per cent of his dream midfield axis, joined Greenwood on the scoresheet with a shimmering dart through a broken Leicester defensive line 22 minutes into the game. But, by then, the Tigers had already posted 21 points and were cast-iron certainties to cement their status as the Premiership's head boys.

Martin Corry, who stood tall once again at No 8, set up Greenwood's opening strike by robbing Nigel Redman at a third-minute line-out and then driving towards the Bath line to create a running overlap going left. The visitors had barely emerged from the explanatory huddle called by Richard Webster, their captain, when Greenwood created his masterpiece. The impact pass with which he released James Overend into the enemy 22 was quite brilliant enough. But when he then chipped a flat midfield defence and regathered the ball with one hand, while holding off Guscott, no soft touch, with the other, en route to the five points, the Welford Road faithful knew they had witnessed the rugby equivalent of a Rembrandt. If he paints a similar picture at Huddersfield on Saturday, the Dutch will be the very last people showing their appreciation.

Leicester: Tries Greenwood 2, Overend, Gustard, Stransky; Conversions Stransky 4; Penalty Stransky. Bath: Try Guscott; Conversion Catt; Penalties Catt 2.

Leicester: G Murphy; L Lloyd, J Overend, W Greenwood (J Stuart 78), N Ezulike; J Stransky, A Healey (J Hamilton 78); D Jelley (G Rowntree 68), R Cockerill (D West 68), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), N Fletcher (M Poole 78), P Gustard (L Moody 76), M Corry, N Back.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, J Guscott, K Maggs, A Adebayo; M Catt, S Hatley; D Hilton, A Long, V Ubogu, B Sturnham, N Redman, R Webster (capt), E Peters, N Thomas (R Earnshaw 66).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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