Rugby Union: Bath's `dog' returns to have its day

Bath 33 Northampton 13: ALLIED DUNBAR PREMIERSHIP: Robinson impressed by revived passion play with Antipodean leading actors
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The Independent Online
THE "DOG" went missing from its Recreation Ground kennel last season and the people who considered themselves its rightful owners, the faithful thousands who flock fortnightly to the cramped little riverside mudheap in the shadow of Bath Abbey, gave it up for lost. Imagine their relief when it returned, quite out of the blue, on Saturday afternoon, barking and snapping and wagging its tail in the faces of a Northampton outfit who had already taken advantage of its departure once and saw no reason why they should not do so a second time.

Bath's canine quality was the very foundation of their hegemonic decade from 1984 onwards; put under the most intense pressure on more occasions than they would care to remember, they would bare their teeth and fight for every last scrap of possession or territory or whatever it was they required to eke out a victory. Which was why Andy Robinson, whose terrier pedigree was never in question during his days in the showring, found chunks of the last campaign so difficult to swallow as a coach. Bath sides of his vintage were not much interested in rolling over and having their tummies tickled.

Northampton were amongst the foremost ticklers last season, but they had their fingers bitten off this time round. Time and again they pitched camp on the Bath line, basing their presumptions of imminent points either on Garry Pagel's heavy-duty scrummaging or Richard Metcalfe's elongated presence in the line-out. Time and again they were repulsed. Chris Horsman, the young West Country prop whose indomitable spirit in the face of cancer has been an inspiration to those around him, took everything Pagel had to offer and then gave some back; Steve Borthwick, equally youthful but a little more experienced in the ways of Premiership rugby, wreaked commensurate havoc in the Saints' line-out.

And once Jon Callard had slotted three fine penalties, two from distance, to put Bath 9-6 up in the 34th minute, it dawned on the visitors that their spell as Premiership pace-setters would be of the short, sweet variety. Callard made a captain's contribution three minutes before the break, diving bravely amid the flying studs to rescue a dying Bath back-line move and give Jon Preston and Shaun Berne, the Antipodean midfield axis, room to conjure an opening try for Iain Balshaw. There was more from Callard in the 56th minute when he seized on Ali Hepher's fumble inside the Bath 22 and flicked a clever pass to Mike Tindall, whose finishing pace over 85 metres was something to behold.

"There are people playing with some real passion out there," said Robinson, who was not wholly taken with the showboating element of Berne's wrap- up try in the final minute, but loved everything else he saw from the spikey Australian. "Both Jons are making big contributions: Callard has been phenomenal in getting the players to feed off his spirit, while Preston has that New Zealander's rugby head on him. He can dictate, he organises, he talks well. He's a bright player and as for his tackling, he just makes so many hits in the course of 80 minutes."

By the time the Premiership campaign moves up a gear towards the middle of November, Bath could be looking very snug indeed. There are some awkward appointments on the immediate horizon, notably the derbies with Gloucester and Bristol, but with Preston loading the bullets for the speed merchants outside and Callard kicking his goals, the World Cup crew may well return to find their clubmates on top of the pile. Top dogs, in fact.

Bath: Tries Balshaw, Tindall, Berne; Conversions Callard 3; Penalties Callard 4. Northampton: Try Metcalfe; Conversion A Hepher; Penalties A Hepher 2.

Bath: J Callard (capt); I Balshaw, M Tindall, S Berne, A Adebayo; J Preston, G Cooper; C Boyd, A Long, C Horsman (M Filipo, 79), M Haag, S Borthwick, N Thomas, B Clarke, G Thomas (B Sturnham, 29).

Northampton: C Moir; J Sleightholme, A Northey (M Tucker, 61), M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, D Malone (J Bramhall, 61); G Pagel, S Walter (C Johnson, 71), M Stewart (M Volland, 58), R Metcalfe, J Phillips, C Allan (S Hepher, 61), D Mackinnon (capt), S Holmes.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).