Rugby Union Commentary: Cool Catt helps corner Gloucester

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The Independent Online
RUGBY'S man of the moment was stuck in the dug-out nervously watching a 21-year-old South African fill his boots. The last time he had been missing Bath had lost their accustomed place in the Pilkington Cup, so he was unwontedly worried. He need not have been.

Stuart Barnes usually bears his Bath responsibility lightly; he has often enough said that the club is the biggest thing in his rugby life, bigger even than his protracted, self-interrupted attempt to play again for England. Now he is back as the England stand-off - and, after all, a Barnes-less Bath have won an important match.

They beat Gloucester 20-0 before a weirdly muted 12,000 at Kingsholm. A mundane performance brought forth a solitary try and a routine victory quite out of keeping with the customary passion of this historic West Country fixture. Barnes, a long-standing calf injury having recurred, looked on as one Mike Catt did the honours in his stead.

Thus did Bath sustain the pressure on Wasps, whose visit to the Recreation Ground on 13 March has become the focal point of the entire First Division season. Bath are two points behind the division's only 100 per centers but have such an advantage in points difference that to win then might well be to win the league for the fourth time in its six seasons.

Catt, meanwhile, is the one Gloucester let out of the bag. From Port Elizabeth, he has played six times for Eastern Province and aspires to the Springboks squad in a couple of years - possibly even by the 1995 World Cup. But, thanks to the helpful ancestry of a mother from Kent, he now has a British as well as a South African passport and has qualified for the Courage Championship.

After last season's experience with the unqualified New Zealander Laurie Heatherley, which cost them a docked point, Bath made sure of that. When Catt came in October to stay with his uncle in Stroud he telephoned Kingsholm and, when there was no reply, tried the Rec and was put in touch with Gareth Chilcott. This was his first league appearance.

'I wasn't planning on playing but I hadn't anything else to do, so thought I might as well try to get some rugby,' he said. As Catt now has two countries, he will have to decide between them. By the end of the month he will have to decide what to do at the end of the season and whether to return later. 'I suppose I now have two options,' he said.

Barnes said Bath would do everything in their power to persuade him to stay. He enjoyed Catt's cool contribution and even the recalled England outside- half agrees that, now that he is 30, his shelf-life is limited. But he hopes to be fit to face Swansea next Friday, will certainly play against Cardiff on 27 February (the day Catt had been due to go home), and will thereafter restore the South African to reserve status.

Barnes was heartened by the adequacy not only of his own replacement but also of Ian Sanders, Richard Hill's scrum-half deputy. 'For the first time for some time, when both Richard and myself have been absent the half-backs went well,' Barnes said. 'I'd like a situation where Bath have players pushing in every position.' This has not always been the case, not at half-back anyway.

Less impressive, though, was the Bath performance as a whole. 'Awful . . . awful,' Jack Rowell, the coach, muttered and it reflected poorly on Gloucester that Rowell's team could win so comfortably yet with such little conviction. A splendid piece of vision prompted Sanders to chip a scrappily delivered ball for Tony Swift's 350th senior try after six minutes. There the contest as good as ended, even if ensuing events were open to interpretation.

'They thought they had done enough and sat back on it,' the Gloucester coach, Keith Richardson, suggested. Barnes begged to differ: 'Once Tony got his try it became a damage-limitation exercise for Gloucester. Morale appears to be pretty low at the moment. I've never known it so quiet here.'

Back to Richardson: 'There's a good spirit in the club at the moment.' In fact Gloucester are in serious danger of relegation, though Saturday's other results did no harm. The exodus of second-choice players may have been less detrimental than the worst of the publicity has suggested but, as one Cherry and White supporter said afterwards, these days he came to Kingsholm anticipating defeat.

Richardson insisted his team had not been 'creamed' by Catt and Co - and so took solace - but Gloucester were undeniably whipped by Redman, Reed, Hall and Clarke in the line-out. Without the ball they generated no momentum in the loose, and they merely chased their tails whenever they sought to move it wider.

The result was the first time in 419 fixtures, since Moseley won 28-0 in January 1977, that Gloucester had failed to score at Kingsholm. Instead, Jon Webb eventually augmented Bath's early lead with the first of five penalties, the other four coming in 13 minutes around half-time.

As for the non-playing former captain, Barnes stoutly maintained that his absence was not precautionary three weeks before his international comeback against Scotland - though he has gritted his teeth to play on through such injuries before.

Rowell had, of course, been joking when he said beforehand: 'I've told Stuart he cost us the cup (he was playing for the Barbarians against Australia while Bath were losing at Waterloo) and now he's going to cost us the league.' But the fact is that Barnes has had inordinate importance during the club's unending years of success.

'Anyone who knows me knows I don't like the prospect of missing derbies at Kingsholm,' he said. 'There would have been no better way to cap my England recall than by giving Gloucester a good hiding.' Even so, Bath have suddenly found they can get by without him - if only after a fashion.

Bath: Try Swift; Penalties Webb 5.

Gloucester: M Roberts; T Smith, S Morris, D Caskie, D Morgan; D Cummins, M Hannaford; P Jones, D Kearsey, A Deacon, D Sims, R West, P Glanville, P Ashmead, I Smith (capt).

Bath: J Webb; A Swift, P de Glanville, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson (capt).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

(Photograph omitted)