The champions showed why when they won the first leg of their spring double 14-6 against the
Tigers in a swamp otherwise known as the Recreation Ground on Saturday. They need only a draw, and possibly not even that, from their remaining fixtures against Harlequins and the relegated London Irish to finalise yet another championship.
'Four years on the trot: that is going to be incredibly difficult to match,' Stuart Barnes, the thinking man's rugby player, said after one of his finest mudlarking performances at outside-half. Indeed, whatever happens at Twickenham in next month's Bath-Leicester cup final, we can already be sure that both stand above the rest of the English game. The teams of the Nineties.
Such a status never comes easily, as Leicester themselves have shown while painfully rebuilding since they won the inaugural Courage Clubs' Championship six years ago. It sometimes palls, even for Bath's stoics, to be forever targeted as the team everyone else wants to beat and their captain has lately been heard musing on the fact that others have been catching up.
The gap may have been narrowing but, as the First Division
decider at the Rec showed, Bath are still the best equipped in the land to withstand the curious pressure of being better than the rest. 'You want to do it for the team; that sounds cliched but it really is like that, and that's why we've been so successful over the last 10 years,' John Hall, the captain, said.
That is a general commendation but, as Hall knows as well as anyone, there is also Bath's specific, astounding capacity for rising to whatever the major occasion. Never mind all the talk of weary, aching limbs - on the Rec mudheap they always are - this champion team of champion individuals seldom fail. 'History shows,' Barnes, once a student of history at Oxford, said, 'that we are a side who pull it
together for the big ones.'
In league terms, they do not come any bigger than that which packed the Rec under a weeping West Country sky. The weather, overnight snow on the Mendips turning to rain lashing down in torrents, fundamentally affected, one might say afflicted, the game. But though no spectacular, it was as full of incident and interest as if it had been a drier day.
As Bath's only league defeat of the season was at Leicester, this was not simply a case of garnering two essential points, though the notion that either side might be seeking a psychological edge as a pre-cup
final ambition was fanciful. Instead, Bath concentrated hard on the here and now, tackling the Tigers at their very own driving game.
Actually to beat them at it was an effrontery that stuck two fingers up to current wisdom. Leicester may have considered the rolling maul - an ideal tactic on such a vile day with bodies everywhere - their speciality, but Bath, as is their wont, demurred. 'It's shut up a few people who don't know as much about rugby as they think,' Barnes snorted.
Yet even the likes of Barnes concede that this season's winning rugby has been plonk rather than vintage - and Barnes, who is fond of claret, should know. He calls it 'idling', in which case the Bath pack stepped up a gear against the Tigers and, unusually, maintained their concentration and effort for a full 80 minutes.
Thus Leicester were restricted to one try chance, prevented by Phil de Glanville's tackle on emergency full- back Rory Underwood, whereas Bath enjoyed vastly more of the game territorially and took theirs when it contentiously came. The well-intentioned David Leslie considered Leicester had derived sufficient
advantage after a Jon Callard knock- on for him to wave play on again when the Tigers in turn lost the ball and De Glanville hacked downfield.
Tony Underwood kicked it out of play but the still-retreating Leicester defenders had their minds on Leslie rather than the throw-in which Tony Swift took in a trice to Ben Clarke. Swift received it back and then interpassed with Mike Catt before slithering over and touching it down to the satisfaction of the closely attendant referee.
Hall thought the play-on call 'fair enough'; Tony Russ, the Leicester coaching director, did not. No surprise there, but the magnanimous Russ was worried about being 'misinterpreted' so he hastily added that this was not a complaint and that Bath had thoroughly deserved to win. 'I never concede anything until it's over but the league is, to all intents and purposes, impossible for us now.'
But the future, long and short term, is full of possibility and it is as fine a compliment to the opposition as Russ could pay that even in
defeat he could see his Tigers coming ever more to resemble Bath. 'We have an emerging, promising side that is capable of challenging them,' he said.
'Regardless of what Bath do now, they have set the standard for the last 10 years and we've set getting ahead of them as our objective. We try to model what we do on what they've achieved. What they're
doing - going up or down - I wouldn't like to say, but we are going up.' The rematch will be before 68,000 as opposed to Saturday's 8,000. Roll on 7 May.
Bath: Try Swift; Penalties Callard 3. Leicester: Penalties Harris 2.
Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.
Leicester: R Underwood; S Hackney, S Potter, L Boyle, T Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), W Drake-Lee.
Referee: D Leslie (Preston).
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