Rugby Union: Blood brothers under the cosh

Bath 9 Northampton 15
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THEY HAVE been raging against the dying of the light for three long seasons now, and while the fists remain clenched and the heart still beats defiantly, they are slowly succumbing to the inevitable. Bath are losing important matches almost as quickly as they are leaking key personnel, and if a doctor were to place a stethoscope anywhere near one of those famous blue, black and white shirts, his next conversation would be with the local undertaker.

Given that the European champions have been buried by London Scottish, Leicester, Harlequins, and Northampton on consecutive Premiership weekends, the aforementioned funeral director might struggle to locate the body. Even if he found it, he would hardly recognise this current West Country vintage as successors to the sneering, swaggering band of blood brothers who dominated the British club scene with such poise and precision throughout the last decade of the amateur era.

Ten years ago, it was common to hear Bath lauded as the "Liverpool of rugby". If there was something to the comparison then, there is a whole lot more to it now; not least the shared sense of sporting empires crumbling from within, of dynasties in decay, of boot-room traditions struggling to adapt to the real world outside. Laughable ineptitude in the market place and damaging power vacuums at management level have left both clubs weakened to the point of collapse. It is not a pretty sight.

Not even Federico Mendez felt like laughing on Saturday night, even though the brilliant Argentinian hooker had experienced the exquisite pleasure of inspiring his new colleagues to a first victory in 23 years over the club he left in such bitter circumstances last summer. "I had a really bad experience at Bath - by the end of my stay there, I was wondering whether I still wanted to play rugby - but I treasure many of the friendships I made during that time and those friends tell me some of the things that are going on at the Recreation Ground," he said. "I'm not surprised they have lost their last four games. They think in old fashioned ways; when I tried to share some ideas with the coaches, they didn't want to listen."

They are going to have to start listening. Bath were not just beaten at their own Recreation Ground on Saturday, they were beaten up; Northampton, who must now be considered genuine pretenders to the Newcastle crown, won the physical contest so conclusively that neither Richard Webster nor Mark Regan, the two hard cases in the home pack, made it to the second half.

Northampton? Those ponces from the Midlands? The very thought will have Gareth Chilcott turning in his Armani business suit.

There may yet be repercussions to go with the concussions. While Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, dodged questions about Webster's fractured eye socket rather more successfully than his threequarters had sidestepped the Northampton midfield, there was much muttering about the alleged contribution of Garry Pagel, the visitors' South African prop, to the Welshman's early demise. "It was a game of rugby," insisted Robinson, a long-standing subscriber to the game's own doctrine of omerta. He admitted, however, that he would take a close look at whatever video footage came to hand.

He will not enjoy his visit to the viewing lounge, for the tapes will merely underline the convincing nature of Northampton's watershed victory. For all the unstinting efforts of Victor Ubogu, the Bath tight head, and Eric Peters, a replacement loose forward who should never have been omitted in the first place, the home pack were made to suffer; turned over almost at will, both in first-up contact and on the floor, they could not match the drive and energy of Mendez, Budge Pountney and the astonishing Pat Lam.

"Mendez and Lam are world-class players who make world-class decisions," beamed Ian McGeechan, whose unrivalled record of Lions success suggests he knows significantly more about class than the authors of Burke's Peerage.

"It's their awareness that delights me; the understanding of when to transform a good defensive tackle into a turnover opportunity, of when to run the ball off a turnover and when to play safe. Our performance was Lionesque in many ways. If you stop the home team scoring tries, you give yourself every chance of winning. To come here and restrict Bath to a single try-scoring chance is very satisfying."

That opportunity fell to Ieuan Evans a minute before the break and, by his impeccable standards, it was an absolute gift. Having soaked up the worst Northampton could inflict and emerged a mere four points adrift at 6-10, Bath injected some real pace into their one long, multi-phase attack of the half and gave the dangerous Mike Catt an acre of space going right. His scoring pass was not the greatest but Evans, a born finisher, will not forgive himself for decking it as he dived for the corner.

From there on in, it was all about options; Northampton, by and large, made the right calls while Bath got the whole business round their necks to such an extent that they ended up swinging from their own crossbar. Three times in a seemingly interminable bout of pressure in and around the Saints' 22, Catt spurned simple penalty shots at goal. Three times, the visitors repelled the unimaginative line-out rumbles, muscle-bound driving mauls, and lamentably unsophisticated pushover attempts that passed for an attacking repertoire.

When Northampton then worked their way to the far end to claim a distinctly fortunate wrap-up try through Pountney - ironically, it came from precisely the kind of close-range line-out that had so obsessed their opponents - the misery was complete. "You make your own luck in this game," snarled Robinson as he stomped off into the night. Very true. And Bath are manufacturing theirs with some very dodgy ingredients.

Bath: Penalties Catt 3. Northampton: Tries Dawson, Pountney; Conversion Grayson; Penalty Grayson.

Bath: I Balshaw; I Evans, J Guscott, K Maggs, A Adebayo; M Catt, S Hatley (A Nicol, h-t); D Hilton, M Regan (A Long, h-t), V Ubogu, B Sturnham, N Redman, R Webster (capt; E Peters, 19), D Lyle, R Earnshaw.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, J Sleightholme; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt), G Seely, P Lam, A Pountney.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).