Rugby Union: Bath stifle the 'free spirits'

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The Independent Online
Gloucester 10

Bath 15

FORWARD play is as traditional to Gloucester as the cherry and white hoops they wear. Inflexible, say their critics, who might care to go down to Kingsholm and see the alternative approach being adopted at the players' own request.

The 'free spirits' style, running the ball and using the pace of Simon Morris and Paul Holford almost worked against Bath and, tested in that rarified atmosphere, it should be a raging success in the company of lesser mortals.

All of Gloucester's nine league tries so far have been scored by backs, the latest from Tim Smith, following Mark Mapletoft's subtle kick ahead, which preceded a final five minutes as challenging as any Bath will face this season.

Bath clung on, surviving a line- out at their own corner flag and breathing an audible sigh of relief at the final whistle. They completed a sixth consecutive win in league matches against Gloucester, despite Mike Catt missing three of five place kicks in the absence of Jonathan Callard. It also equalled their own record of 15 victories in succession.

Barrie Corless, Gloucester's director of rugby, pinpointed Bath's stealthy strengths. 'A side can match them for 70 minutes as we did, but it's their ability to move up a gear in the other 10 which makes them so difficult to beat,' he said.

Holford has scored 10 tries for Gloucester in nine games, including the four-match pre-season tour of South Africa, which produced three wins, during which the wings ran in 12 of the 17 tries. Their attacking wit on the field is not confined to that, however.

A blackboard outside a Gloucester pub reads: 'Andy Robinson has just called his house 'Offside' because that's where he lives.' Robinson's riposte was to score a try, following a slick switch of direction and interpassing with a distinctive Bath trademark between Martin Haag and Ben Clarke.

Haag had displaced Nigel Redman, one of four internationals selected for Bath's second team, which highlights the reasoning behind league squads now being restricted to 50 players.

It prevents stands being filled by film-set extras, hanging around on the off chance of a walk-on part in one league match a season, but basically being superfluous to requirements. Last winter, one league club in London had nearly 200 players registered, effectively stifling players who would have been better advised to go elsewhere.

Most clubs have favoured signing around 40 this season, leaving places free to allow swift registrations in case of injuries. Simon Geoghegan, the Ireland wing, joins Bath's league strike-force this week, while Mike Teague - back from Moseley - is already eligible for Gloucester but was deemed not match-fit.

Facing Bath in that state was not to be advised. Nerve ends also had to be in prime condition, but no one was cooller than Mapletoft, an acquisition from Rugby, making the swift adjustment from playing in front of a few hundred spectators to performing before the baying crowd of 8,500 who watched him on Saturday.

Gloucester: Try T Smith; Conversion Mapletoft; Penalty Mapletoft. Bath: Tries Robinson, Sanders; Conversion Catt; Penalty Catt.

Gloucester: M Mapletoft; P Holford, B Morris, B Maslen, T Smith; M Kimber, B Fenley; P Jones, J Hawker, A Deacon (capt), D Sims, R West, P Glanville, (P Ashmead, 60), C Raymond, I Smith.

Bath: A Lumsden; T Swift, P de Glanville (capt), E Rayner, J Sleightholme; M Catt, I Sanders; V Ubogu, G Dawe, J Mallett, M Haag, A Reed, A Robinson (G Adams 33-38), B Clarke, S Ojomoh.

Referee: E Morrisson (Bristol).