Rugby Union / Commentary: Bath are left to soldier on in their own wreckage

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The Independent Online
THE Courage Championship is two-thirds through and Bath, leaders and champions, are in danger of being buried in the Recreation Ground turf - or what is left of it. The erstwhile greensward is now a glutinous mixture of mudheap and sandpit and quite unworthy of England's premier club side.

This may seem a convenient excuse, and in any case as long as Bath keep on ekeing out wins as they did by 13-7 over Orrell they will still win the title. But it is like driving a Rolls-Royce along a country track and Saturday's game was as relentlessly drab as the conditions.

'I know we aren't playing very well but on that pitch you can only run in straight lines,' Tony Swift, who had run in a straightish line for the critical and contentious Bath try, complained. 'You can't put any sophistication into your play; it's all brawn and effort.'

Two things of which Bath are never short are brawn and effort, but the submerging of their sophistication in a mire of the club's own making is deeply disappointing. Despite torrential rain, Bath were so determined to fulfil their fixture against Cardiff after Christmas (Clifton and Richmond were less important) that the surface was damaged beyond immediate repair.

So when Bristol's insistence on proceeding with their First Division visit nine days later was supported by the Senior Clubs' Association, with the threat of deducted league points, Bath were hoist with their own petard. No amount of sand could prevent the pitch deteriorating still further so that now any side who come resolute in defence to the Rec have a more decent chance than Bath's multitudinous talents would otherwise allow.

'You come up against a good defensive side and you aren't going to be able to do much,' Swift acknowledged. Orrell were a case in point, tackling ferociously and winning enough ball to pin back Bath in the ping-pong kicking duel into which the game descended for too long.

If the kicking had been better it might have been tolerably watchable, but instead the usually voluble Bath crowd slipped first into glum semi- silence and then overt disgruntlement. It was not as if Orrell were threatening anything much but, once Jonathan Callard had landed an early penalty, neither were Bath.

How appropriate that Orrell's try should have come from a kick - and a Bath one at that. Stuart Barnes, who found scuttling through the morass the rough equivalent of running waist-deep in the swimming-pool adjacent to the Rec, delayed long enough for Dewi Morris to charge down and regather when Swift made a hash of securing the consequent loose ball.

'After that I had to do something,' Swift said, though in fact the riposte was by no means swift. Langford's conversion left Orrell believing they had the winning of the game and John Hall so frustrated that he felt unable to deliver Bath's half-time pep talk.

'I was getting so frustrated I handed it to Stuart,' the captain confessed. 'He said the right things and we turned it round.' Doubtless there was a measure of contrition as well but, whatever the outside-half's advice / admonition / admission consisted of, it worked a treat. As is their wont, Bath stepped up their own pace in the third quarter and so slowed that of their opponents. Callard kicked a second penalty, missing four others in the second half, and as the hour struck so did Bath. The harmonious combination of backs and forwards was a solitary but perfect example of what they do best.

What a creature is Mike Catt. Frankly, the feisty South African is good enough, and performing well enough, to play for the land of his mother right now, never mind sit on the England bench - even though to all intents and purposes he remains a Bath reserve filling in during the extended injury absence of Jeremy Guscott.

Catt's startling turn of speed took him through and away from Orrell's first defensive line before Phil de Glanville and Chris Clark linked with Steve Ojomoh, who made further ground until the ball squirted in Swift's direction. He hacked ahead and was deemed by Ed Morrison to have made the necessary contact for a try.

'It was a 100 per cent try,' Swift smirked, though the Orrell players to a man naturally differed and furthermore asserted there had been a forward pass and knock-on in the build-up. 'I wouldn't want you to think we're criticising the referee,' Langford said. 'But there was a question mark over the try.'

However philosophical the likeable Langford may have purported to be, this defeat leaves Orrell precariously positioned one place above the relegation area, two points ahead of London Irish, who have a game in hand. As chance would have it, the Exiles are Orrell's visitors in the next round of league fixtures on 12 February.

'We've been a bit unlucky,' Langford lamented. 'We should have beaten Bath at home (instead they lost 18-15) and we should have had a better result here. We also did well at Leicester (lost 23-18) and they are becoming the best side in the league.'

This is talk of a sort calculated to rouse Bath from Saturday's torpor. A couple more wins will probably secure Orrell's First Division status but, with Leicester narrowing the points-difference gap, Bath could well need to win all six of their remaining league games, including of course the climactic one against Leicester at the Rec on 9 April, to keep the championship.

Bath: Try Swift; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 2. Orrell: Try Morris; Conversion Langford.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; C Clark, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, A Reed, J Hall (capt), S Ojomoh, A Robinson.

Orrell: S Langford; J Naylor, I Wynn, M Farr, P Hamer; S Taberner (capt), D Morris; M Hynes, G French, D Southern, C Cusnani, C Cooper, P Manley, D Cleary, S Hayter.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

(Photograph omitted)