Rugby Union: Bath in second gear

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The Independent Online
Bath 21

Gloucester 16

BEFORE GLOUCESTER can be taken seriously as genuine championship contenders they must first take themselves seriously. For all their challenging talk before this match and despite dramatic improvement during it, they remain short of the self-belief so vital to success.

Had they started the contest as they finished it, they would have won at a canter. Phillipe Saint-Andre's try three minutes from time following relentless pressure on Bath's line brought victory into their sights for the first time and with the Bath defence looking increasingly vulnerable, a victory was no more than they deserved, but the earlier damage, much of it self-inflicted, had been too severe.

If anything, the pitch, saturated by hours of continuous rain, suited the Gloucester forwards, yet seldom in the first half could they exert any measure of domination, let alone control their own ball. This was again in such contrast to their towering display in the closing stages, and it made one wonder why they should have gone to sleep in those crucial stages.

The problems up front were compounded by the failings behind, so that Bath did not have to be anywhere near their best to survive. It was not a day for fancy footwork or flashing passing, yet midway through the second quarter Bath had a sufficiently comfortable lead to indulge their passion for both. It almost proved their undoing.

Matt Perry dallied so long on a clearing kick that Simon Mannix, who seemed to have a sixth sense of an impending chance, charged it down and crossed for a try. That brought Gloucester into the game for the first time and briefly restored the confidence that had been conspicuously absent.

Had Phil Greening not had a rush of blood and been dispatched to the sin-bin, perhaps Gloucester might have made more of their chances, but the hooker chose this of all times to loose his cool and, with the mass change of personnel that such a situation now demands, Gloucester's momentum, such as it was, had been lost.

The hill Gloucester built for themselves in that disappointing first half became progressively steeper after Scott Benton fired out a shocking pass to his wing Rob Jewell from a scrummage. On a good day it would have been difficult to take but in the cascading rain it was impossible and the best the bemused Jewell could do was to swat it into the path of Adedayo Adebayo, who ran 40 yards unopposed for the try.

On a couple of occasions when Gloucester did win good possession and created enough space to use it, Richard Tombs and Mark Mapletoft were guilty of wasting kicks directed straight at Perry. This must have been especially frustrating for the Gloucester forwards who, like almost everyone else in the ground, had spotted the wide open spaces between the Bath full-back and their front line of defence. But Gloucester never did succeed in exploiting it.

On the other hand, Bath were tactically more street-wise in the first half, although Mike Catt's kicking from the hand was at best erratic. Yet he is an irrepressible character and was to have his say with three penalties and a prominent part in making Andy Long's try from a line-out near Gloucester's line. Catt, though partially held, made enough of a dent to give the inside pass to Long, who covered the ground from touch line to midfield with impressive nimbleness.

With a 13-point deficit, Gloucester's determined start to the second half, though still in reduced circumstances in Greening's absence, yielded a beautifully struck drop-goal by Mapletoft. But unlike their stuttering first half Gloucester were able to sustain their momentum and they began to cast aside their inhibitions. Admittedly Bath went out of their way to aide Gloucester's rehabilitation with some dry-weather folly when they should have kept it simple and tight. They very nearly paid a high price.

A series of ferocious scrums five metres from Bath's line, at which Gloucester had the put-in but not quite the firepower, were repulsed. Mapletoft crucially missed a penalty and with Catt unleashing Adabayo with a spinning pass the pressure eased on Bath's defence.

Bath, though, continued to make life difficult for themselves and it wasn't until Saint- Andre's try that they were sufficiently roused to establish a foothold in Gloucester 22 until the final whistle.

Bath: M Perry; I Evans, K Maggs, P De Glanville, A Adebayo (I Balshaw, 67); M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, A Long, J Mallett (K Yates, 55), N Redman, B Sturnham, N Thomas, E Peters, R Webster (capt) (R Earnshaw, 64).

Gloucester: C Catling; R Jewell, R Tombs, S Mannix, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton; T Windo (T Woodman, 55), P Greening (C Fortey, 55), A Deacon, R Fidler, D Sims (M Cornwell, 62), S Ojomoh, S Devereux (C Fortey, 35-45; E Pearce, 72), N Carter.

Referee: N Cousins (RFU) replaced by N Yates.