Rugby Union: Bath find means to an end

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STEVE BALE

reports from the Recreation Ground

Bath 19 Gloucester 10

As Bath, so they like to tell us, are at their worst - a relative term - without the benefit of regular rugby, there was an explanation ready for this unusually unpersuasive performance in seeing off, though never subduing, their less than neighbourly antagonists in the Pilkington Cup semi-final.

With the final in mind, however, the theory also has a positive aspect. After the disruptive fragmentation of the middle, international part of the season, Bath can get down to serious Saturday-by-Saturday business for the remainder of the league season, so that by the time they face Leicester they will be as well-honed a club-rugby machine as it is possible to be.

So much for theory. If Gloucester, who are known by aficionados as the Elver Eaters, proved anything by their voracious appetite when they came as upstarts into the Georgian City it is that even Bath are vulnerable, sort of, to a team with decent ball-winning capacity, mobile forwards and resolute defence.

As Leicester have all of these - and moreover more of them than Gloucester - they may fancy their chances, but if they try to repeat at Twickenham what they did at Sunbury they will not fare so well. When it comes to playing it fast and loose, no one in England, and probably nowhere in these islands, does it better.

If there is a problem, it is that it has become essentially predictable. Provided the conditions are not absolutely filthy, and maybe even then, Bath make a supreme virtue of constant movement, sometimes up their own backsides. Brian Ashton, their coach, has had them play a completely non- kicking game as a useful experiment in non-league fixtures.

But once you know what is coming - and always supposing you are fit enough to sustain the same pace as Bath's - it is possible to work out a means of defence, by the theoretically simple expedients of closing down space and always, but always, tackling first time. With the notable exception of Adedayo Adebayo's quite exceptional try, Gloucester achieved precisely this.

Leicester, being second in the First Division, behind only Bath, where Gloucester are second-from-bottom, above only West Hartlepool, may well do still better, except that by then the Bath machine will be in full, well-oiled running order. On Saturday, after a long month of inactivity, it spluttered.

This, though, is not meant as a disservice to Gloucester, whose renewed but belated self-belief under Richard Hill's tutelage is threatening to elevate them out of the relegation area (if, indeed, there is to be relegation) and very nearly did elevate them into the cup final. For Hill, who began the season as Bath's chairman of selectors and is now the Gloucester coach, that would have been delectably sweet and sour.

But ultimately such a leap - of faith in themselves as much as anything - was just beyond his courageous players. While Jonathan Callard placed all his important kicks, Mark Mapletoft (supposedly averse to a Puma ball when everyone but Bath uses a Gilbert) missed his and an awful lot of pressure, more than they would have dreamt of exerting when they were drubbed 37-11 here in September, brought precious little reward.

Small wonder Hill, who arrived at Kingsholm during the week that followed that grim result, has been touting for the professional services of a number of Bath players including Callard, whose way into Saturday's team was opened only when Richard Butland was injured playing for England Students and Mike Catt had to revert from full-back to outside-half.

"We know we lack the cutting edge, because we have nowhere near the pace in our back line that Bath have in theirs," Hill said when he emerged from an unfamiliar location, the visitors' dressing-room. "So we have to work very, very hard for our scores." They will have another chance in the league when Bath go to Kingsholm on 10 April.

The hard work began when Martyn Kimber responded to Callard's first penalty with a drop goal, but Gloucester constantly fell foul of Ed Morrison, English rugby's leading referee, and by half-time Callard had kicked three more. Bath then launched the decisive attack virtually from the second- half kick-off and after exquisite passing had freed Adebayo, the England A wing brushed aside Mike Peters and Mapletoft while galloping from half- way.

With Callard adding a demoralising touchline conversion, these were the moments when Gloucester in pre-Christmas mode would have succumbed; instead they marched straight downfield for Scott Benton to tap a penalty and scuttle over. Mapletoft converted but though Gloucester held territorial sway for most of the long time that remained, there the scoring ceased.

That left Hill and his team buoyed by the hope that they could avoid what had once seemed inevitable. Relegation worries, by contrast, never impinge on Bath. But, though they were perceptibly impaired by Graham Dawe's early retirement with a shoulder strain, the only satisfaction they would permit themselves was that they had made it once more to the final - for the 10th time in 13 years, and after the curiosity of the very first of their 10 semi- finals to have taken place at the Rec.

"We are not satisfied. I am not satisfied. Brian is not satisfied. The players are not satisfied," said John Hall, a team manager who has been known to smile only now and then (and very nice he looks when he does). "Having said that, when you reach a final you don't think about the games you've played leading up to it. We've always proved that we come good on the day."

Fair point. No one, not outside Yorkshire anyway, will bother to remember how close Bath were to the ignominy of going out to Wakefield of the Second Division in the last 16 if they make it 10 out of 10 at Twickenham on 4 May.

Bath: Try Adebayo; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callad 4. Gloucester: Try Benton; Conversion Mapletoft; Drop goal Kimber.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, G Dawe (N McCarthy, 39), V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Gloucester: M Mapletoft; M Peters, D Caskie, M Roberts, M Lloyd; M Kimber, S Benton (B Fenley, 66); A Windo, P Greening, A Deacon (A Powles, 10-13), R Fidler, D Sims (capt), P Glanville, C Raymond, I Smith.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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