Rugby Union: Bath's gifted apprentices steal show

Bath 24 Leicester 16
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The Independent Online
THEY WERE all aflutter in Bath when the news filtered out that "The Panther", their prince, Jeremy Guscott, was injured and had had to pull out of the big one against Leicester.

The reason was a pulled hamstring tendon, which renders Guscott doubtful for England's meeting with Wales at Wembley on Sunday. The Bath coach, Andy Robinson, said: "Jerry was training all week, but the first time he went at full pace he felt a niggle in the fibres of his hamstring. It might need another week or two and he is going to be borderline for next Sunday."

Guscott's possible absence may provide a headache for the England coach, Clive Woodward, but it probably cured Robinson's. He was able to bring in the precociously talented Mike Tindall alongside the man of the match, Kevin Maggs, and the 20-year-old proceeded to fill Guscott's boots with aplomb.

Ultimately it was an emphatic win over the Allied Dunbar Premiership leaders and ended an unbeaten run of 10 games by the Tigers, but the error count on both sides and the penalties they gave away did neither team any credit.

Bath policy assigns old sorcerers to young apprentices and Tindall could not have a better master than Guscott. The one-on-ones are certainly paying dividends. Tindall looked the complete player, an amalgam of Phil de Glanville and Guscott: fast, fierce and fearless.

No wonder Bath have just signed the Wakefield-born centre on a three- year contract. He is surely on the brink of graduation from England Under- 21 to the A team and may possibly be in contention for the World Cup.

The performances of Tindall, the scrum-half Gareth Cooper and the Bath lock Stephen Borthwick were overshadowed by injuries, though. Leicester's Scotland No 8, Eric Peters, suffered a fractured patella and will be in plaster for up to eight weeks. "That's it for the season," Peters, who was due to be operated on yesterday, said. "But I should be okay for the World Cup. It's a three or four-month job to get back to full fitness, so I should be back by late July or August."

And full-back Matt Perry will have given Woodward further palpitations when he admitted to feeling a degree of discomfort after aggravating the groin injury suffered last week against Saracens, prompting speculation that he was only 50-50 for England. But he insisted: "I'm not worried about next week. I am fully fit, there's no 50-50 about it."

It took a long time before Bath were able to take advantage of the attacking skills of Tindall and Maggs. Penalties abounded in a scrappy first hour, which saw Neil Back sin-binned for the first time in his career after throwing a punch in retaliation for some nefarious stuff from a Bath forward. In addition both front rows were ordered to concentrate on the game not the settling of old scores, and there were a host of kicking cock-ups and more handling errors than you would see in a mini-rugby tournament.

Typically it took a penalty try to break the deadlock of three kicks apiece from Mike Catt and Tim Stimpson, when Leicester brought down a maul close to their line.

Bath moved up a gear and Maggs and Tindall came into their own. The Ireland international Maggs withstood a shuddering tackle, got the ball out to Tindall who scorched away a la Guscott then sent out an exquisitely timed pass to Iain Balshaw, whose searing speed brought him his 13th try of the season and his 10th in the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Catt's fourth penalty seemed to have taken the game beyond the Tigers' clawing reach, but the referee, Ashley Rowden, then awarded a second penalty try when Bath stepped offside on their line. Pat Howard converted it with a quick drop goal but there was no time left. So the Tigers still need five points to clinch the title; Bath still a few more to ensure an appearance in Europe next year.

Bath: Tries penalty try, Balshaw; Conversion Catt; Penalties Catt 4.

Leicester: Try penalty try; Conversion Howard; Penalties Stimpson 3.

Bath: M Perry; I Balshaw, M Tindall, K Maggs, A Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper; D Hilton, M Regan, V Ubogu (K Yates, 80), M Haag, S Borthwick, R Earnshaw, D Lyle, E Peters (capt; R Bryan, 73).

Leicester: T Stimpson; N Ezulike (J Ferris, 80), C Joiner, P Howard, D Lougheed; G Murphy, J Hamilton; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 68), R Cockerill (D West, 68), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden, L Moody (P Gustard, 70), M Corry (W Johnson, 70), N Back.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).