Rugby Union: Bath need European challenge

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The Independent Online
THE BATH club are to rugby today what Liverpool were to football in that remotest of ages, the day before yesterday. They win everything. They have a relentless quality to their play. They represent a defined place where their sport holds first position among the populace. Their supporters are enthusiastic and (unlike those of, say, Llanelli) unashamedly partisan.

Their facilities still leave something to be desired, but no doubt that failing will be remedied in due course when other matters have been attended to. Meanwhile, everyone is very friendly, not least the players.

Late on Saturday evening, getting on for half the side were celebrating their defeat of Leicester, and their virtual certainty of winning the First Division championship, at the Beaujolais Restaurant. This is Stuart Barnes's favourite watering-hole, where he will fortify himself with a glass or two of red wine.

Last Saturday, copious quantities of the stuff were being put away, and quite right, too. But everyone was very well behaved, for wives and girlfriends were present. In any case, Bath players are grown- up people.

The proprietor of the restaurant comes from Toulouse, which may give him an affinity with rugby folk. Certainly his generosity is more characteristic of restaurateurs of the South-West of France than those from the South-West of England.

In the course of the evening, Barnes said that what rugby needed was a European Cup. This would be a marvellous addition to the game, if it could be fitted in. I should certainly be prepared to sacrifice the Divisional Championship for it.

The paradox is that, while English rugby is played to a higher degree of skill than ever before, there is something lacking. England and Wales have turned in on themselves. This has happened for wholly comprehensible reasons, to do with leagues and knock-out cups.

Nevertheless, in England the cup has taken a long time to become airborne as a sporting event. It has been in existence since 1972. In its first seven years, it was shared among four clubs: Bedford, Coventry, Gloucester and Gosforth.

In the last seven it has been shared among only three: Bath, Harlequins and Leicester, of whom Bath have won four times. On 7 May they have the chance to do it again.

On Saturday night, Barnes and the Bath captain, John Hall, were confident of success. The Leicester management, for their part, had said earlier on that their team would perform differently with the sun of early May on their backs and the turf of Twickenham under their feet.

They were not complaining about the conditions at the Recreation Ground, mind you. The truth remains that conditions underfoot are never as bad at Welford Road as they were at the Rec on Saturday. While even Jack Rowell cannot control the weather, it is not beyond the wit of man to secure a decent playing surface through systems of drainage which were discovered in the 18th century.

What is surely clear is that a match of last Saturday's importance should never have been played on such a surface. Most of the Bath players would agree with this. They have no great love for the Rec - the pitch, that is - merely because it allowed them to demonstrate that in the conditions they were Leicester's superiors.

The question remains: how good are Bath? In England, they are in a class of their own. Their performance last Saturday and on the previous one, when they beat Harlequins by one point in the cup, demonstrated that beyond any question. But how good are they compared to, say, Swansea, Neath or Llanelli (now relatively lowly placed in the Heineken League at fifth)? Or Toulouse, for that matter?

In the old days, Bath would play Llanelli and it was an occasion. Today, the clubs, on the odd occasions when they do meet, field not so much their second as their third teams. True, they might not meet at all in Barnes's European Cup. The competition would still give us a better idea of how good Bath really are.

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