Rugby Union: Bath on the way back to Europe

Bath 56

West Hartlepool 24

AS A season once threatened by a worst-ever losing run draws to a close, Bath are at last within touching distance of the chance to defend the European Cup they won so thrillingly in 1998.

An emphatic, eight-try victory over the Premiership strugglers West Hartlepool propelled them into third place, but the manner of their success served notice that they may return to the Continent with high hopes next term. A back division containing five players aged 22 or under displayed the cutting edge that they will need to prosper in the highest company.

A week earlier, Bath had been beaten by a distance by London Irish before half-time. Here they might have been the ones galloping over the horizon by the break but for West Hartlepool hanging on to their coat-tails with the determination by which their entire season still clings precariously to life.

The young legs in Bath's back line carved out four first-half tries, but it was not until a flurry of three more touchdowns in eight minutes around the hour mark that West finally lost both touch and hope.

Steven Vile had kicked the game's first points after four minutes and then Iain Balshaw took a pass from Dan Lyle to end a spell of home pressure with his 14th try of the season. Kevin Maggs - an old hand at 24 - was then sent in by Mike Catt after the stand-off had broken clear from Wales Under-21 scrum-half Gareth Cooper's flat pass.

Balshaw, England's Under-21 wing, then ran in his second from halfway after a mix-up between Phil Greaves and Steven John handed him a clear run, but two more Vile penalties kept West within sight.

A penalty from Catt, followed by a try for the 20-year-old Mike Tindall created by the pace of Cooper, extended the lead once more, but West again hit back with a try for Greaves, who was sent in at the left flag by the player/coach Mike Brewer.

And within three minutes of the restart, the visitors had closed the gap to just eight points. After Catt kicked the penalty, the West full- back Emmet Farrell appeared outside the winger John to take the ball at full tilt and step inside Matt Perry to score from 30 yards.

That, however, was merely the cue for Bath to cut loose in the final half-hour. In quick succession, Hilton plunged over, Catt pirouetted through midfield to send in Perry and then the full-back completed a routine overlap before Cooper rounded off the scoring from close range in injury-time.

Tokunbo Adebayo, standing in for injured brother Adedayo, completed the youthful look of the Bath back line and showed a familiar turn of foot in a division packed with the pace of Balshaw, Tindall and Cooper. They will face sterner challenges in defence but will be looking forward to renewed European competition. West cannot see further than next week's relegation showdown with Bedford.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall, T Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper; D Hilton, M Regan, V Ubogu (K Yates, 48), M Haag, S Borthwick, N Thomas, D Lyle (B Sturnham, 71), R Webster (capt) (R Earnshaw, 61).

West Hartlepool: E Farrell; T Handley, M Mullins, P Greaves (G McLure, 65), S John; S Vile, T Nu'uali'tia (R Stone, 74); S Sparkes, S McDonald (S Whitehead, 62), K Fourie (P Beal, 75), P Farner (capt), J Ponton, D Hyde (S Cassidy, 40), M Brewer, D Monkley.

Referee: C Rees (London).