Rugby Union: Can there be life after Guscott for Bath?

Bath 23 Pontypridd 10
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The Independent Online
Iron discipline, intense commitment, miraculous wet-weather ball skills... and one miserable, farcical try to show for it all. Bath still possess the kind of self-belief that moves mountains but their cutting edge, the glinting stiletto with which they have ruthlessly filleted the very best opposition for more than a decade, remains conspicuous by its absence. "Wait until Jerry Guscott gets back," say the frustrated but eternally expectant West Country faithful. But Jerry Guscott may not be coming back.

Not for a long while, at least. Just at the moment, the only mark England's prized and peerless midfield diamond is making at the Recreation Ground is a question mark. Guscott has not played since breaking his left arm during the Lions' final Test against the Springboks in Johannesburg in early July, but the more pressing problem concerns a back injury he suffered in training last month. He will learn today whether surgery is required and if he has to go under the knife once again at 32. It could even be a case of Thank You and Goodnight.

Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, went out of his way to appear unconcerned on Saturday, but succeeded only in giving the impression that he was very concerned indeed. So concerned, in fact, that he had thought of nothing else for weeks. He squirmed, fidgeted, shuffled around on his feet and grew more cryptic by the second as he was pressed on the precise state of Guscott's fitness. He was more than happy to discuss Ieuan Evans - "back in a couple of weeks, perhaps, but we won't push him" - and Simon Geoghegan - "he's in America having another operation on his toe and we don't expect to see him this side of Christmas." But Guscott? Strictly off limits.

The subject was very much up for discussion on the Bath grapevine, though. The most positive whispered estimate gave Guscott an outside chance of returning in a month while the most negative had him calling it a day and abandoning the gladiatorial in favour of The Gladiators. Whatever the official prognosis, it seems certain that England will go into this autumn's Tests with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa without him.

All of which gives Phil de Glanville and his young midfield confrere, Matt Perry, a target on which to train their sights and both centres were in suitably combative mood as Bath squeezed the pips from Pontypridd, wrapped up their wonderfully competitive Heineken Cup group and guaranteed themselves the priceless advantage of a home quarter-final. But there was too much of the bludgeon and not enough of the rapier about them and as a result, the possession-starved Welshmen escaped far too lightly.

Indeed, Gareth Wyatt's tearaway try 14 minutes from time not only gave Pontypridd a fleeting vision of the smash and grab raid to end them all, but put Bath's lack of finishing prowess into stark relief.

It was quite beautiful in its simplicity: a scrum on the Ponty 22, a flat cut-out pass from Neil Jenkins that hit Dafydd James at pace and a simple lay-off to Wyatt, who disappeared into the wide blue yonder to finish from 70 metres. "I didn't think teams were meant to score from first phase these days," said an admiring Nigel Redman, still blinking in disbelief hours after the event.

Having been comprehensively "mullered" for more than an hour, Ponty were back in touch at 10-17. They would get no closer, though; Mike Catt's drop goal 12 minutes from time and a coup de grace penalty from Jon Callard restored a semblance of sanity. "When we find our rhythm, and it was there in parts out there, we're bloody good, whatever the weather," beamed Robinson.

It was certainly one of the coach's better days. He had been bold in selection - Robinson gave Mark Regan, the England hooker, a chastening toe-poke in the pants by dropping him for the prodigiously gifted rookie, Andy Long - and intrepid in his planning, demanding a fast and complex close-handling support game despite the wind and driving rain. It was sharp, dynamic and, in the opening quarter, it bordered on perfection.

No one thrived more spectacularly than Dan Lyle, the American No 8. He ran everywhere, tackled everyone and, most strikingly, he caught absolutely everything, whether the ball was down around his bootlaces or plummeting from the high heavens with snow and ice attached. What was more, he forged an excellent understanding with his captain, Andy Nicol, whose intelligent decision-making at scrum-half was the other decisive factor in Bath's favour.

The two of them were directly responsible for the home try, which arrived on 34 minutes. Nicol's predatory instincts forced Paul John into an embarrassing slice as he attempted a clearance from the base of a five-metre scrum and with the ball up for grabs, Lyle soared above a clutch of competitors to claim the five points.

Callard did the rest. Pulled in 90 minutes before the off when Robinson decided that the young full-back pretender, Ian Balshaw, might not appreciate the paddling pool conditions, the new player-coach landed four important first-half penalties to embellish Lyle's try.

"I want to keep playing but I know my limitations in respect of the fast, dynamic game we're trying to play and I have no intention of standing in anyone's way," said Callard with characteristic open-faced honesty. "Balshaw's a big talent - some good judges in the England youth set-up think he's the best they've ever worked with - and now I'm involved on the coaching side, I want to see him realise his potential."

Maybe, just maybe, there will be life after Guscott.

Bath: Try Lyle; Penalties Callard 5; Drop goal Catt. Pontypridd: Try Wyatt; Conversion Jenkins; Penalty Jenkins.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville, M Perry, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol (capt, R Pellow, 74); D Hilton, A Long (M Regan, 67), V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, R Webster (E Peters, 67), D Lyle, R Earnshaw.

Pontypridd: K Morgan (A Barnard, 31); G Wyatt, D James, S Lewis, J Lee (M de Maid, 74); N Jenkins (capt), Paul John; N Eynon, Phil John (J Evans, 69), M Griffiths (A Metcalfe, 54), G Prosser, M Rowley (S Roy, 56), M Spiller, M Lloyd (P Thomas, h-t), M Williams.

Referee: J Dume (France).