Bath. . . . . . .26
NEVER in my years as player, reporter or blinkered enthusiast have I witnessed anything to match this. A sequel to beat the original. When these two sides last met in the Pilkington Cup two seasons ago not only did they create one of the best ever finals, they produced one of the year's most dramatic sporting occasions. That was in the epic contest at Twickenham, when Stuart Barnes dropped a goal in the last second of extra time.
In yesterday's semi-final, a mere drop goal along the road at The Stoop, there were three minutes of this tumultuous match remaining when Bath did it again. Up to that point, Harlequins with three swashbuckling tries and countless heroic deeds, were on the brink of victory against the side who had, in their seven semi-finals, never experienced defeat. But this fact alone kept Bath's players going when only they believed that victory was still possible. They swept forward in defiant desperation. Mike Catt found space on the right and Jon Callard put Tony Swift clear with only Kent Bray in his path. Bray had him in his sights and, for one heart-stopping second, held him in his grip. But Swift pulled free and reached the line close enough for Callard to kick the winning points.
'We never lie down and we always believe that we can win a close game,' John Hall, Bath's captain, said. 'We are experienced at doing that. Our heads dropped momentarily when we fell behind and we needed to play our get-out-of-jail card. I really thought the game had slipped away when we were under the cosh and conceding scores in the second half. But the end result was dependent on Bath's character.'
Impossible as it is not to admire Bath's refusal to submit, so it was impossible not to feel for Harlequins, who appeared to have lost all hope as early as the 13th minute, when they were 12 points down. The millstone around their necks then was their fly-half, Paul Challinor, who had suffered the most horrid couple of minutes, missing with a penalty and then having a kick charged down by Andy Robinson, the ball rebounding to Barnes, who sprinted 70 yards to score under the posts. The element of surprise had given Barnes a head- start but even so one imagined that Quins might have closed the gap before it was too late.
Perhaps they were still reeling from the shock of Bath's opening assault. With a favourable wind Bath had mixed sinew with subtlety to put Swift over after just five minutes. And before half-time the speed of their recycling from the pack had opened the way for Catt to put Callard over. Nineteen points down to opponents whom they had never beaten in any competitive fixture would surely prove to be an insurmountable hurdle.
But in the second half, Challinor, the millstone, proved the wind beneath their wings. First he kicked a penalty and then, after Martin Pepper had squeezed in for a try in the right-hand corner, Challinor beat down Catt's clearing kick. As he dribbled past Callard he was impeded by the Bath full- back, and the referee had no hesitation in a awarding a penalty try, to which the fly-half added the goal points. For good measure he later dropped a peach of a goal after Justyn Cassell had scored Quins' third try. Cassell was the replacement for Chris Sheasby, who dislocated a kneecap. Jason Leonard, not renowned for his line-out skills, had won the ball and Pepper had once again done the groundwork for the try.
What is more, Harlequins were succeeding in areas where Bath had enjoyed almost total domination in the first half, when Andy Robinson and Ben Clarke had been swallowing everything in the loose and their line-out jumpers had grabbed the pick of the possession. But even without their injured Wallaby lock, Troy Coker, Quins turned the line- out count round.
And so, astonishingly, from what had appeared an impossible position, Harlequins were ahead by six points, enough to cushion them against almost every misfortune. It will be of little consolation that Bath are probably the only side in the country capable of inflicting that misfortune, but to the neutral observer it was nevertheless the most spectacular entertainment of the season.
Harlequins: Tries Pepper, penalty try, Cassell; Conversions Challinor 2; Penalty Challinor; Drop Goal Challinor. Bath: Tries Swift 2, Barnes, Callard; Conversions
Harlequins: K Bray; J Keyter, W Carling, G Thompson (J Alexander, 28-38; Alexander, 40 ), D O'Leary; P Challinor, C Luxton; J Leonard, B Moore, A Mullins (capt), P Thresher, A Snow, M Russell, C Sheasby (J Cassell 20-22; Cassell, 40), M Pepper.
Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Lumsden; S Barnes, R Hill; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, A Robinson, J Hall (capt), B Clarke.
Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).
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