Rugby Union: Commentary - Bath stumble under a pack of problems

Bath 17

Richmond 29 after extra time

It is one thing to throw a ring-rusty Jeremy Guscott into an awkward fifth-round cup tie without so much as a single second-team rehearsal and say: "Do your best for an hour, Jerry, then feel free to come off if you're knackered."

It is quite another to ask the most outrageously gifted centre of his generation to put six months of career-threatening injury behind him in the flicker of an eyelid and win a match without any discernible help from his club-mates. At the very least, it smacks of desperation.

But then, Bath have been scratching around in search of desperate remedies for quite some time now. On Saturday, seven days before a Heineken Cup final with Brive that would test the most confident and capable of international sides to the absolute limit, the West Countrymen realised precisely half of the equation: that is to say, they were profoundly desperate without suggesting anything approaching a remedy.

Guscott was productive enough, but then, he usually is; a sporting genius may lose match hardness and a few degrees of competitive edge during the course of a long convalescence, but he forfeits none of his skill, his animal instinct, his acute awareness of circumstance as a game unfolds around him.

Winning rugby has never been the exclusive preserve of the individual, however, least of all a midfield cavalryman wholly dependent on the effectiveness of the forward infantry plying their trade in front of him. In short, no threequarter can hope to do the business on his Jack Jones.

It is now transparently clear that those forwards are failing the Guscott- inspired glitterati in the Bath back division. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the most successful English club side of them all are shambling from pillar to post with their most ineffectual pack since John Hall was in short trousers and Jack Rowell accepted an unpaid role as Gareth Chilcott's rugby probation officer and made an upstanding citizen of him.

Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, was admirably diplomatic in refusing to point the finger, but his back row, in particular, are off the pace and he knows it. All the great Bath sides boasted loose trios of potency and balance - Hall or Steve Ojomoh on the blind-side, Paul Simpson, David Egerton or Ben Clarke at No 8, Roger Spurrell or Robbo himself on the breakaway flank - but the 1998 vintage has little to do with Chateau Petrus and everything to do with cut-price supermarket plonk.

Robinson tacitly admitted as much by singling out the Richmond threesome as the stand-out performers on a curiously flat occasion. If Clarke oozed vim and vigour on an emotional return to the scene of so many former glories and Rolando Martin made mincemeat of an out-of-position Nathan Thomas, Scott Quinnell was more influential still.

The big Welshman did not make yards off the base of the scrummage, he made furlongs. He carried the ball up, he tackled like the proverbial ton of bricks and in the words of his coach, John Kingston, he "caught fire" during extra time. "When Scott wants it, he gets a glazed look in his eyes," Kingston said. "Believe me, he was well glazed towards the end."

Not that the game should have gone anywhere near extra time. Bath started well enough - "We maintained possession through seven phases in the first minute," Robinson pointed out - but the following 79 were rather more of a problem. The home side virtually wrote off the line-outs, not just because the accuracy of Mark Regan's throwing was more reminiscent of Harold Wilson than Jocky Wilson, but because Craig Gillies, a former Recreation Grounder, displayed a flexibility and athleticism way beyond the scope of his old club-mates.

"He's 21 and he wants to be the best," Kingston said. "You might say Craig is a player who slipped through Bath's fingers." Robinson grimaced at that comment while, at the same time, acknowledging its legitimacy. "When we signed German Llanes last season, it was felt Craig would struggle to get sufficient games to allow him to develop," he said. "Yes, he was allowed to go. Those decisions have a way of coming back to haunt you, don't they? Just to rub it in, we'll have Steve Ojomoh and Jon Sleightholme back here soon."

With Gillies hoovering up, Richmond chiselled out leads of 9-3 and 14- 8 by the 48th minute and looked set fair for an uncomplicated victory. One exquisite delayed pass from Guscott sent Adedayo Adebayo in at the left corner for a 26th minute try but it was a mere blip compared to the Londoners' steady accumulation of points through Adrian Davies' right boot and an early second-half strike for yet another Bath old boy, Jim Fallon.

Only when Richmond allowed themselves to be fazed by the prospect of victory did Bath exert any meaningful pressure. Mike Catt, who looks increasingly like a world-class outside centre impersonating a second-class stand-off, landed two simple penalties in the final quarter to square the tie at 14-14, but when the teams emerged from their huddled breathers, it was the visitors who seized the moment.

They were helped no end by the fact that the first five minutes of extra time constituted the most naive, inept and inadequate spell of knock-out rugby produced by Bath since they first won the John Player Cup in 1984. Catt and Dan Lyle made a mutual mess-up of Richmond's restart, Adebayo fly-hacked a promising attacking ball straight into the 58th row of the temporary stand, Matt Perry failed to lay a hand on a pick-up he would normally have dealt with in his sleep and Catt threw a certifiable pass straight to Matthew Pini in dangerous waters on half-way.

Norman Wisdom would have made a better fist of it and not even the most myopic of Bath supporters expressed the slightest surprise when Dominic Chapman justified his reputation as a quick, no-nonsense finisher with the killer score at the left flag. Catt dragged his side back to within a score with another sand-wedge penalty, but the game had drifted away. Davies replied in kind from right field before Steve Cottrell, a useful performer alongside the excellent Allan Bateman, set up and finished his own try on the final whistle.

Leicester demonstrated last season that Bath's cup mystique was a phenomenon of the past. On Saturday, Richmond took the exploding of the myth one stage further - and they did not even need to pack any dynamite.

Bath: Try Adebayo. Penalties Catt 4. Richmond: Tries Fallon, Chapman, Cottrell. Conversion A Davies. Penalties A Davies 4.

Bath: M Perry (I Balshaw, 99); I Evans, P de Glanville (capt, R Butland, 87), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, R Pellow; F Mendez (J Mallett, 49), M Regan (A Long, 90), V Ubogu, B Cusack, N Redman, R Webster (E Peters, 49), D Lyle, N Thomas.

Richmond: M Pini; J Fallon, A Bateman, S Cottrell, D Chapman; A Davies, A Moore; D McFarland, B Williams, D Crompton (J Davies, 53), C Quinnell (A Codling, 93), C Gillies, B Clarke (capt), S Quinnell, R Martin (A Vander, 80).

Referee: J Pearson (Durham).

Comments