Rugby Union Commentary / Courage Clubs' Championship: Dismissal is tough on Clough: Holders Bath strike the front after sending-off mars fierce battle at the Recreation Ground

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The Independent Online
WHAT was it the Bard said about expectation often failing? No one would have expected the former England centre Fran Clough, of all people, to be sent off when Wasps played at Bath; one might have imagined a few other candidates for the David Matthews digit of doom, but no, not Francis.

Mind you, we all expected this to be the unsurpassable occasion of the English league season. But, though there was a tingling sense of occasion beforehand and for all of the 14 minutes Clough remained with us, it thereafter became a drab non-spectacular. Bath made such hard work of beating the parsimonious 14 men at all that to win 22-11 was to be touched by excessive fortune.

But then Shakespeare did also warn that expectation most often failed when it promised most. In prospect Saturday at the sun- kissed, jam-packed Recreation Ground amid the architectural splendour of the Georgian City was delectable. In retrospect, and for all Wasps' heroic resistance, the game of the season left a bad, bad taste.

Which did not matter too much to Bath. At the head of the Courage Championship, they have overtaken Wasps, whose first league or cup defeat this was, on the strength of a points-difference advantage of 132. At Clough's departure, Bath had trailed 6-0; it took them until the 60th minute finally to take a precarious lead, and 83 minutes before their solitary try.

They had the referee to blame, both sides did so, and also the sheer indomitability with which the straitened Wasps took the fight, figuratively and to an extent literally, to them. (In an unintentionally ironic aside in the Evening Chronicle special edition Rob Smith, the Wasps coach, said of his captain, Dean Ryan: 'You can stick him anywhere and he'll make a fist of it.')

Above all, though, Bath could blame themselves for a drastic failure to exploit overwhelming line-out superiority and, more specifically, to assail the area of vulnerability created by Clough's premature farewell. Instead of attacking the flanker Buster White and later scrum-half Chris Wright, out of position on the blind-side wing, they unaccountably played it through the back row in a throwback to the unlovely Bath of five or six years ago.

As White and Wright would testify, the Clough incident critically shaped the game. Matthews's patience was exhausted once he had warned Dawe, Dunn, Hall, Reed and Ryan (forwards all) and then issued a final warning. 'I told the captains the next offender would be sent off and it might not be a man who'd been involved in previous warnings,' he said.

Spot on: it had to be a back. Jeremy Guscott trod on Clough after a tackle and when Clough retaliated by going after Guscott off he went - for striking an opponent, even though he never so much as raised his fist. Doubtless Clough, a 30-year-old Cambridge academic who gained four caps in 1986 and '87, should have known better but he was more sinned against than sinning and had shown limited intent let alone landed a blow. Guscott denied culpability or, indeed, that Clough had hit him.

'If that's what he thinks, then that's what happened,' Clough said of the referee with unlikely diplomacy. 'Apparently it's on the video tape. You can watch it and draw your own conclusions.' We may be certain this is precisely what Wasps will be asking the Middlesex disciplinary committee to do. Three First Division fixtures and more particularly a cup semi- final against Harlequins lie ahead.

Clough said his only previous dismissal was for swearing when he was a 12-year-old rugby league player in his native Wigan. That he could smile about it hinted at a levity that was emphatically not shared by his coach. 'It was going to cause a major problem to send a player off in a game of that stature,' Smith said. 'If you're going to, it has to be for dirty play but that was a minor incident which had a major effect on the game.'

On the other hand, Matthews had made everyone aware of where, by this time, he stood: 'I said to the captains 'I've given you a chance. I've given the penalties and the warnings. The next move is up to you because you know my next action'.'

Matthews is the referee who displaced Fred Howard, also from St Helens, on the Rugby Football Union's international panel. On Saturday he persuaded neither Ryan nor Andy Robinson, the Bath captain, that the RFU had done the right thing. According to both, it is a question of empathy, the willingness and ability to communicate. 'Referees have to tell players what's happening,' Robinson said.

Instead we got an over-penalised, stop-start, disjointed mess. Why so many referees - Brian Stirling at the England-Scotland match was another - award penalties to a side the moment they cleanly win a line-out, with not even a second or two's time for advantage, is a mystery. Come back, the empathetic Fred Howard, all is forgiven.

Eventually Wasps rose above the mediocrity. Though the depletion in their ranks was ample excuse, they played more rugby of quality than it was reasonable to expect of them. Rob Andrew exuded class, more on this occasion than his England successor, Stuart Barnes, and it was his exquisite short pass to Graham Childs (whether or not it was forward) that effectively created Phil Hopley's try.

At the time Wasps led 11-3, a handy margin that was erased by Jon Webb's four penalties from nine attempts; 12-11 to Bath being how it stayed until Barnes dropped a goal four minutes from the end. Three minutes into injury time Clarke, Ubogu, Hill, Barnes and de Glanville combined off scrum and ruck to set up a try by Guscott.

On another day it, not Fran Clough, would have been the abiding memory. I should have known from the moment Clough was featured in the Independent's sports pages on Saturday morning. 'Sorry about your article,' Clough apologised - to which your correspondent replied, sympathetically: 'It was the kiss of death, Francis, the kiss of death.'

Bath: Try Guscott; Conversion Webb; Penalties Webb 4; Drop goal Barnes. Wasps: Try Hopley; Penalties Andrew 2.

Bath: J Webb; A Swift, J Guscott, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson (capt).

Wasps: A Buzza; P Hopley, G Childs, F Clough, C Oti; R Andrew, S Bates; G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, D Ryan (capt), F Emeruwa, M Greenwood, M White (C Wright, 44).

Referee: D Matthews (St Helens).

(Photograph omitted)

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