Rugby Union: Bath convinced Sturnham's red card unjustified

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Bath 57 Bedford 19

CONTROVERSY APPEARS to dog Ashley Rowden when Bath are involved. The last time he took charge of a match in Bath he found himself embroiled in the infamous ear-biting controversy in last January's Cup tie against London Scottish. Not long after that he was criticised by Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, for his handling of the West Country side's defeat at Richmond last April.

On Saturday Rowden was back in the thick of another foggy incident. There was as much murk enveloping the sending-off of the Bath lock Ben Sturnham as there was over the whodunnit aspect of the ear-biting. Sturnham was dismissed on the say-so of the touch-judge Andy Melrose, because Rowden was nowhere near the incident and admitted he saw nothing.

The reason for the sixth-minute red card was initially given as stamping, later amended to kicking, before finally being given as stamping by Rowden. But each offence is distinct. The indecision throws into question just what Mr Melrose spotted.

A preliminary examination of the match video by Bath officials convinced them that nothing Sturnham did warranted a sending-off and the player himself said: "I didn't think it was a sending-off offence."

It is likely that Bath will mount a vigorous defence against any further punishment - the statutory penalty for stamping is an 84-day suspension if the head is targeted or 42 days if it is the body, although Jason Leonard, the Harlequin and England prop, was recently sent off for stamping and was handed a 30-day ban.

Thankfully, the remaining 74 minutes of the match were compulsive viewing for all the right reasons. Mike Catt was in commanding form at fly-half. Chief beneficiary of Catt's brilliance was the rejuvenated Jeremy Guscott.

For the third time this season the England centre, playing as well as he has ever played, scored two tries in an Allied Dunbar Premiership match. The heroes of the day, though, had to be the hard-working Bath pack. Once the shock of losing Sturnham and then the lead to a plucky Bedford had worn off the magnificent seven dictated events.

Such was their control that Bedford were rarely given a chance to build any kind of platform and what possession they managed to snatch was quickly wrested from their feeble grasp. Bath's defensive cover was as effective as a fire blanket. Bedford burned bright but briefly at the start before being smothered until much later on, far too late for anything significant.

The troubled visitors saw a 14-6 lead obliterated, first by the boot of Catt, then by his brain and brilliant ball-skills. The 30-yard cross- field pass that sent Guscott away for his second try was dazzling. Richard Webster's two touchdowns were less dramatic, but no less deserved, while the England full-back Matt Perry and the hugely talented wing Iain Balshaw underlined Bath's potential for attack. Their defence of Sturnham should also be interesting to watch.

Bath: Tries Hatley, Guscott 2, Webster 2, Perry, Balshaw; Conversions Catt 5; Penalties Catt 4. Bedford: Tries Howard, Underwood, O'Mahony; Conversions Howard 2.

Bath: M Perry; J Fallon, K Maggs, J Guscott (P de Glanville, 60), I Balshaw; M Catt, S Hatley (A Nicol, 60); K Yates, A Long (M Regan, 66), J Mallett (C Horsman, 66), M Haag, B Sturnham, N Thomas (R Earnshaw, 60), E Peters, R Webster (capt; D Jones 74).

Bedford: S Howard; R Underwood, J Ewens, A Murdoch (capt), D O'Mahony; T Yapp (R Ashforth, 74), S Crabb (C Harrison, 63); N Hatley, J Richards, C Boyd (V Hartland, 63), D Zaltzman, S Murray, M Deans (R Winters, h-t), J Cockle, J Forster.

Referee: A Rowden (Reading).