Rugby Union: Bath left kicking themselves
Bath committed the unforgivable by going into Saturday's Heineken European Cup quarter-final with Cardiff without a dependable goalkicker and, in losing 22-19, were rightly sentenced to elimination from the one tournament they wanted to win more than any other. Worse than that, they failed to take advantage of the Get Out Of Jail Free card across which they stumbled on the morning of the game when John Sleightholme, their international wing, cried off with a severe stomach upset. It was self-delusion on the grandest scale.
By omitting their specialist full-back Jon Callard from their original line-up, the English champions spurned an intense competitor who had not only proved himself adept at landing match-winning goals for his country while being stretched out on the rack of nervous torment, but had also captained and kicked the club to victory over the Frenchmen of Dax in a do-or-die pool match just three weeks previously.
Sleightholme's misfortune gave the selectors an obvious escape route - Jason Robinson from full-back to right wing with Callard restored to his customary position - but in a move as illogical as it was expensive, they pulled in Henry Paul instead. Paul may be costing Bath pounds 5,000 a game during his sabbatical from rugby league duties with Wigan, but in the menacing atmosphere generated by an Arms Park full house, Callard would have been worth infinitely more.
Cardiff could hardly believe their luck. Mike Catt, a decent No 2 marksman but unlikely to go down in history as rugby's answer to William Tell, duly missed early chances to put Bath nine points up - in the context of a tight and tumultuous encounter, such a lead would have bordered on luxury - and when the West Countrymen, three points adrift in injury time, forced a penalty 45 metres from the posts, there was no one remotely equipped to handle the job.
"I didn't even think about going for goal," admitted Phil de Glanville, the new England captain. "I knew it was out of range so I called for us to run the ball again in an effort to get closer."
Crazy. And it could get crazier still on Saturday when De Glanville leads his country for the first time against Italy. Catt, a wonderfully instinctive outside-half who needs the exacting responsibility of goalkicking about as much as Bernard Manning needs a sandwich, will be lumbered with the job once again. Instead of selling seat cushions, the Twickenham marketing department might consider a range of replacement fingernails.
John Hall, who, as Bath's director of rugby, has as much say as anyone in selecting the side, refused to budge an inch after the game. "This is a massive disappointment for us but I have no regrets," he insisted. To which Terry Holmes, the Cardiff coach, could only smile. "I wouldn't even contemplate going into a game like that without a recognised kicker," he said. "In fact, I gave a lot of thought beforehand to the possibility of sending on a goalkicking substitute if the situation demanded it."
Ironically enough, it was a substitute who knocked the stuffing out of Bath. Jonathan Davies, whose level-headed performance at outside-half more than justified his recall to the national squad, had already landed four from four when Lee Jarvis, a 14-stoner with a boot like a howitzer, replaced the injured Justin Thomas just after the hour. In the space of nine minutes Jarvis thumped over two penalties from the best part of 50 metres to give the Welshmen a 10-point breathing space.
It was enough to make the difference, for there was precious little else between the two sides. With Victor Ubogu and Nigel Redman turning in their best displays of the campaign to date, Bath had the edge at the set-piece and were more dynamic at ruck and maul. Cardiff, far more productive at the line-out, played the touchlines intelligently and, thanks to their superior kicking, were able to keep risks to a minimum and wait for opportunities to arrive.
When Cardiff's one try-scoring chance did present itself on 59 minutes, they took it with a flourish. Hemi Taylor, their captain, provided the muscle up the middle, Rob Howley spotted Davies screaming for the ball at an oblique angle going left, and, one gloriously delayed pass later, Nigel Walker was in behind the posts having caught both Paul and Robinson on the wrong foot.
Nathan Thomas's last-minute try for Bath also had much to commend it, notably a startling piece of acceleration from Catt all the more impressive for the fact that it came so late in so unforgiving a game. But while it was enough to bring an all-embracing chorus of "Bread of Heaven" to a premature and strangulated conclusion, there was to be no operatic late twist to an afternoon of considerable drama.
"Bath have been calling themselves the best team in Europe for ages, but I didn't think that was a justifiable claim before this game, and I certainly don't think it is now," said Holmes, milking every last drop from a memorable Welsh triumph over the old enemy. "As far as I'm concerned, the strongest Welsh clubs are every bit as good as the strongest in England. France is the real test because their domestic rugby is the finest in the world." For the first time in many years, the superlatives are giving Bath a wide berth.
Cardiff: Try Walker; Conversion J Davies; Penalties J Davies 3, Jarvis 2. Bath: Try Thomas; Conversion Catt; Penalties Catt 4.
Cardiff: J Thomas (L Jarvis, 63); S Hill, M Hall, L Davies, N Walker; J Davies, R Howley; A Lewis, J Humphreys, D Young, J Wakeford, D Jones, M Bennett (O Williams, 11), H Taylor (capt), J Ringer.
Bath: J Robinson; H Paul, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol (I Sanders, 3); D Hilton, G French, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, E Peters, S Ojomoh, N Thomas.
Referee: G Black (Ireland).
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