Rugby Union: Bath's historic toil of the unexpected

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The Independent Online
Bath 19

Brive 18

The great gothic cathedral of Bordeaux has seen its fair share of historic convulsions down the years - vivid memorials to Charles de Gaulle and Jean Moulin, the hero of the Resistance, can be found within a few yards of its huge oak doors - but there was something unique afoot in the aisles and transepts on Saturday morning. As the local worshippers arrived for mass, they found the pews packed with rugby-shirted Englishmen, many of them wearing ludicrous fluffy wigs streaked with blue, black and white. The Bath faithful were at prayer - and they were praying for deliverance.

Scores of West Countrymen were back on their knees yesterday, thanking their God for the miracle they had just witnessed. No one had given Bath a cat's hope in hell of beating Brive in the Heineken Cup final and thereby realising the European dream that had been a source of spiritual nourishment since the pioneering days of Barnes, Palmer and Spurrell. The words of Tony Swift, the chief executive at the Recreation Ground, illustrated the point perfectly; he thought there would probably be a reception of some kind back home, but could not be sure what, if anything, had been organised because he "hadn't exactly been thinking in terms of victory".

In truth, it did not occur to the Bath players themselves that they might win until Jon Callard, who was first described as the goal-kicker with the Midas touch when Midas was still alive, slipped over for a peculiarly simple try a couple of minutes short of the hour mark. That score resulted from the combined inspiration of Dan Lyle, Andy Nicol and Jeremy Guscott and was the first occasion any three Bath players could be said to have acted in unison.

Unless, of course, you count the Bath front row of Dave Hilton, Mark Regan and the outstanding Victor Ubogu. Five minutes earlier, they had looked their French opponents square in the eyeballs and flatly refused to concede a centimetre in the course of seven muscle-wrenching, ball- breaking scrums. Had they conceded that centimetre, it would have been game, set and champagne to the reigning champions, for the Bath pack would have been in their own in-goal area contemplating the humiliation of a pushover try. They were that close to defeat.

"Those scrums were the turning point and the front row, the honest toilers, did it for us," said Andy Robinson, the Bath coach. Laurent Seigne, his opposite number, saw it from a different angle. "Why no penalty try?" he fumed. "They collapsed the scrums, they wheeled the scrums, they did everything in their power to stop us and it was all illegal." Monsieur Seigne was an international prop during his playing days and his frustration at Bath's streetwise approach to those crucial set-pieces was sharpened by the knowledge that he would have dealt with the situation in precisely the same way.

He had a greater claim to his nation's sympathy over the Yvan Manhes affair, which presented Callard with his fourth and match-winning penalty deep in injury time. Adedayo Adebayo, the most threatening of the Bath backs on an afternoon when threats were as rare as rubies, fielded Alain Penaud's loose clearance kick and thumped it back into the Brive 22, only to receive all 18 stones of the former Aurillac second row smack in the middle of his ribcage. David McHugh, the Irish touchjudge, flagged immediately for what he considered to be a mixture of late tackle, stiff-arm tackle and blatant obstruction, but television footage suggested Manhes had simply stumbled into the big Bath wing without any intent whatsoever.

All the same, it was a bit rich of Seigne to describe the decision as "disgusting" and to assert that "in our hearts, the Brive club feel this was their game, not Bath's", for Brive have only themselves to blame for the bovine tactics that cost them their title. In a disjointed and in many ways unsatisfying match saved only by the delicious paranoia of its final quarter, the Frenchmen gave their opponents a get-out by ignoring the sublime talents available to them out wide in favour of some half- witted macho posturing up front.

All of which played into Bath's grasping hands. Their well-chronicled decline may be irreversible - at the very least, they require major surgery to piece themselves back together after two seasons of blood-letting and controversy - but they still know how to defend their corner in the face of adversity. Robinson picked his fighters for the most important game in the club's history and while they did not see a fat lot of the ball, the Callards, de Glanvilles, Nicols, Haags and Websters sweated blood for him.

Callard, in particular, paid his way. Having hooked what should have been a nerve-massaging first kick at goal on five minutes, he proceeded to knock over everything else that came his way. "You don't think about the situation when you have a chance to win a big one in injury time," he said afterwards, choking back tears of joy and relief. "You don't think about it because you can't afford to. When it means so much to all the people associated with a club you've given your heart and soul to, the very act of thinking turns you into a wreck. The only way is to blank everything and get on with it."

Which is exactly what his opposite number, Christophe Lamaison, failed to manage. The lavishly gifted centre from Bayonne has all the technical ability in the world and a natural range for which most other kickers would kill in cold blood, but he is beginning to miss the really important ones. He messed up twice on Saturday and if the injury-time opportunity he was forced to take on was wickedly wide-angled, there was no excuse at all for his 75th minute aberration from the right of the Bath posts.

For the last two weeks of the build-up to the game, the buses in Bath bore the advertising logo: "British bottle, French whine." Lamaison did not whine on Saturday night, but the 30,000 Frenchmen who had seen the Heineken Cup slip from their grasp must have been tempted to make one small adjustment to the catchphrase. "British bottle, French bottler" would have been more appropriate.

Bath: Try Callard; Conversion Callard. Penalties Callard 4. Brive: Penalties Lamaison 5. Drop goal Penaud.

Bath: J Callard; I Evans, J Guscott, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol (capt); D Hilton, M Regan (F Mendez, 77), V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, R Webster, D Lyle, N Thomas (R Earnshaw, 70).

Brive: A Penaud; J Carrat, C Lamaison, D Venditti, S Carrat (S Viars, 76); L Arbizu, P Carbonneau (capt); D Casadei, L Travers, R Crespy (D Laperne, 50), E Alegret, Y Manhes, L Van der Linden, F Duboisset (R Sonnes, 70), O Magne.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).