Rugby Union: Bath's fortress escapes sacking

Allied Dunbar Premiership: Gloucester's coach takes heart from narrow derby defeat despite his side's profligacy; Bath 21 Gloucester 16
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The Independent Online
DIFFICULT THOUGH it is to believe in the tawdry light of certain tabloid revelations, Gloucester created more clear-cut opportunities to break their Premiership duck at the Recreation Ground than Will Carling has had blondes.

As a point of interest - well, everyone else is talking about him - Carling would have hated every last rain-sodden moment of this latest exercise in West Country tribalism; earthy, proudly parochial and distinctly unglitzy, it was a day for the farm machinery rather than the Range Rover. Not your scene at all, Will. Best stay at home and count your money.

It is quite possible that Gloucester will live to count the cost of their profligacy in losing 21-16 to Bath. Rugby is a unique sporting jungle in which unwritten laws tend to apply - never lie on the ball in Dunedin, never pick a fight with Dean Ryan, that sort of thing - and the rule-makers decreed long ago that Bath's city centre stronghold was not the place to spurn scoring chances. The modern day Rec is nothing like the fortress of old, but the Nigel Redmans and Phil de Glanvilles of this world still know how to operate the drawbridge.

Time and again, the Cherry and White raiding party pitched camp at the foot of the castle walls, only to fall victim to their own shortcomings. Phil Greening, silly boy that he is, used his shaven head to plant an all too public Kingsholm kiss on Andy Long at an attacking five-metre scrum, thus conceding a penalty and earning himself a 10-minute breather into the bargain. Chris Fortey, who replaced Greening at hooker at the end of the third quarter, was marginally better behaved but equally culpable, forfeiting priceless line-out positions with boomerang throws. As for Nathan Carter, the memory of a fumbled pushover touchdown eight minutes into the second half will have him in a cold sweat well into the next millennium.

Yet as Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach, stressed afterwards, there is another, more encouraging, way of looking at life on the wrong end of a narrow derby defeat. "We're bitterly disappointed, but it's a form of disappointment I can almost put up with," he said. "I can handle the anger, the frustration of letting a big game slip when it was there to be won. It's embarrassment and humiliation I find really hard to swallow and while we've had our fair share of both down here, it feels different this time."

Maybe, just maybe, the West Country worm is finally on the turn. Eighteen points adrift inside half an hour - an early deficit that would, under the old order, have inevitably mushroomed into a 50-point shellacking by the final whistle - the visitors regathered their wits, painstakingly wrested control from their rivals and finished comfortably the stronger. They also scored the try of the day, a stiletto-sharp finish from Philippe Saint-Andre after some positively Gallic midfield jiggery-pokery from Mark Mapletfot and Richie Tombs. Genius comes to Gloucester. Crikey.

"He's had quite an impact, Monsieur Saint-Andre," agreed Hill. "Not so much on the training pitch - like all good Frenchmen, he likes to save himself for match day - but he's one hell of a competitor when Saturday afternoon arrives. If the game doesn't come to him, he'll go in search of the game. He usually finds it, too." The man himself concurred. "We are becoming more confident away from home," said the former Tricolore captain. "This season, I'm getting a dozen passes a game."

According to Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, 40 points will be sufficient to win this season's Allied Dunbar title; a calculation that allows for six defeats. Indeed, he went further. "I've set us a target of 11 home wins from 13 matches. We always think we can win at the Rec; in fact, we know we can win at the Rec. But this professionalism lark has fundamentally changed the nature of rugby in this country. People keep harping on about the past, about Bath never, ever losing games on their own tump. Well, we're in another era now and anyone who thinks his side is unbeatable at home is kidding himself."

An entirely reasonable point of view, you will agree, but Bath did not hoover up 16 trophies in 13 seasons by being reasonable. They lorded it over the rest because they armed themselves with thoroughly unreasonable men like Robinson himself and there was something slightly disconcerting about the hoary old flanker's apparently serene acceptance of the inevitable.

Certainly, the old ruthlessness has seeped away into the River Avon. For 30 or so minutes on Saturday, Bath were in their pomp, their performance a wondrous mix of stylish swagger, intense concentration and faultless wet-weather technique. They were given a start when Scott Benton overcooked his short-side pass to Rob Jewell and presented Adedayo Adebayo with the simplest of home runs. Mike Catt created a slithering second try for Long on 27 minutes and although Simon Mannix replied with a chargedown score 90 seconds later, there seemed nothing in the game for Gloucester.

And then the home pack went quiet. The second half was all Gloucester, who kick-started themselves with a Mapletoft drop goal within two minutes of the restart and then spent six minutes delivering a scrummaging tutorial on the Bath line. Had they scored then - or rather, had poor Carter scored then - they would surely have made it count. Next time, they will expect to do so.

Bath: Tries Adebayo, Long; Conversion Catt; Penalties Catt 3. Gloucester: Tries Mannix, Saint-Andre; Penalty Mapletoft; Drop goal Mapletoft.

Bath: M Perry; I Evans, K Maggs, P de Glanville, A Adebayo (I Balshaw, 67); M Catt, A Nicol; D Hilton, A Long (M Regan, 77), J Mallett (K Yates, 55), B Sturnham, N Redman, R Webster (capt; R Earnshaw, 64), E Peters, N Thomas.

Gloucester: C Catling; R Jewell, R Tombs, S Mannix, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton; A Windo (T Woodman, 56), P Greening (C Fortey, 56), A Deacon, R Fidler, D Sims (capt, M Cornwell, 62), S Ojomoh, S Devereux (E Pearce, 72), N Carter.

Referee: N Yates (Manchester).