Rugby Union Commentary: Bath beg to differ and have points to boot: Flat-out Wasps left to catch up

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The Independent Online
AFTER three defeats in a row, Wasps could be excused if they were beginning to have doubts about the run-it-from-everywhere and at-all-costs approach which has so enlivened the first month of the Courage Clubs' Championship.

Not a bit of it. For one thing, the middle defeat by Leicester was conceded playing rugby of a more familiar and circumscribed kind and, for another, to have Bath hanging on for a 12-9 win at the Recreation Ground is in itself a decent achievement.

True, defeats - least of all three of them, since the league has never been won by a team conceding so many - do not win titles, but Wasps have set out on a course they believe to be right for them and also, though this is incidental, right for English rugby and the England team.

That they were beaten by such mundane scoring as four Jonathan Callard penalties to three by Rob Andrew did justice neither to the nature of an enthralling and often exhilarating game nor to the way Wasps, and to a lesser degree Bath, have decided caution is riskier than ambition and invention.

Opinions differ, however. There are all too few English sides who could realistically contemplate such a radically progressive step but, even though Bath are one of them, their coach is unconvinced. 'Wasps try to play at 100mph, at times we got dragged into playing the same game, and I'm not sure you can play like that without making too many mistakes,' Brian Ashton said.

With this Rob Smith, his Wasps opposite number, would heartily disagree - even if it takes this season and beyond for his players to master his requirements. Not least, he is convinced that this is the route England have to take if they are to have any chance on a wider international stage than the Five Nations, more especially at the World Cup.

Bath's game, which he describes as 'territory-based', cannot in Smith's view be transposed to international rugby. 'I doubt whether that method carries forth into the higher levels. We are playing it differently and we aren't there yet, but if we get it right, then the players I believe will be better prepared for international level.

'The World Cups of the future are always going to be played in the best conditions, when the weather is good and the grounds are good. You are going to want players who can play running rugby: props, locks, hookers, everybody has to be involved in the handling game.'

This is not as utopian as it sounds, since the England players saw it for themselves when they were touring South Africa four months ago. And there was some justification for a post-match remark by Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, that though Bath had just won, the run-around style had actually worked.

'There aren't many sides come down and produce a game like that against Bath,' he said. Ryan spoke the literal truth, since no visiting team has won a league match at the Rec, and few have even gone close, since Wasps themselves did so in 1991. Indeed, Saturday's win, their 16th in succession since losing at Leicester last November, broke their own First Division record.

Smith was quietly fuming at the attentions of a Scottish referee whose handling of the rucks and mauls differed diametrically from the Englishman who had done the Leicester game. In his frustration, he criticised Ben Clarke for persistently obstructing Steve Bates and Bath in general for the subterfuge by which they halted Wasps' flow.

He might equally well have complained about the multiplicity of Wasps' handling errors and the poor ball-retention that was common to them and Bath. And he and Ryan, who should know, agree that discipline is a continuing problem. Ryan himself seldom goes through a match without incurring official displeasure and on this occasion Norman Hadley, Wasps' Canadian lock, escaped with two refereeing warnings for foul play in a matter of minutes.

'Norm has to wise up,' Ryan sighed, though the captain had done himself no favours by haranguing a touch-judge after his own warning for climbing on a Bath back. Ian Lambert gave him a mouthful back for his pains. Even Smith lost his composure sufficiently to take to the touchline to bellow at Eddie Murray when a critical late decision went against Wasps.

Compared with that, Bath were serene. They had the better of the first half, led 12-3 early in the second and would have been beyond recall if a sumptuous long-range attack leading to a three-man overlap had not been squandered by Ed Rayner's pass at Phil de Glanville's ankles.

Shortly afterwards, the ill- starred Rayner dropped a pass with another try chance on offer and from that moment Bath found themselves having to save a match they might have been winning comfortably. Rayner's travails made it a good time to be reminded that the Lions centre Jeremy Guscott is due to make his comeback from a serious pelvic injury in the second team either next Saturday or the Saturday after.

Now, if ever there was a player made for the freedom and adventure Smith, Ryan and others are trying to infuse into the game, it is Guscott. Let us therefore wish him well, just as Jack Rowell, the England manager, most certainly does - with fingers tightly crossed - as he contemplates next year's World Cup.

Rowell was back home at Bath on Saturday, not for the first time this season scarcely able to believe his admiring eyes. 'I have seen what I can only describe as a revolution in club rugby,' he said. In which case, long live the revolution.

Bath: Penalties Callard 4. Wasps: Penalties Andrew 3.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, E Rayner, A Adebayo; M Catt; I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, J Mallett (C Clark, 54), M Haag, N Redman, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.

Wasps: J Ufton; S Pilgrim, G Childs, A Thompson, S Hunter; R Andrew, S Bates; D Molloy, K Dunn, J Probyn (I Dunston, 7-9), M Greenwood, N Hadley, L Dallaglio, D Ryan (capt), C Wilkins.

Referee: E Murray (Greenock).

(Photograph omitted)

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