Rugby Union Commentary: Guscott hits town in wild West show: Bath close to coming unplugged

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JEREMY GUSCOTT was back for Bath and it was wonderful to see the joy of rugby in full expression: a spirit of adventure, slick handling, thrilling running, crunching tackling, absolute indomitability. For all of these much thanks, West Hartlepool.

Guscott's reintroduction after a year recovering from a groin injury that developed into a chronic pelvic condition was more prosaic, personal relief at coming unscathed through a game - any game - of rugby augmented by collective relief at hanging on for a thoroughly unwarranted 20-18 win.

So for West the joy of their rugby was overwhelmed by the anguish of their defeat and of the reality that, unless Northampton continue their convenient practice of losing, they are going to have to pick up some points from somewhere to ensure the First Division survival of which they are manifestly worthy.

How ironic it was that the occupants of the press box and its overflow had come to see Guscott, not Bath and certainly not West Hartlepool. Once it had been established that the erstwhile, and doubtless near-future, England centre was not going to suffer a relapse in the North-east every journalistic preconception went West.

Even so, let us deal first with Guscott and state immediately that it was a delight to have him back. His main responsibility, as it turned out, was to stem the tide of Hartlepool attacks and the boy with his finger in the dike could not have done it any better. He tackled as hard and often as he ever did.

It took 15 minutes for him to have ball in hand - only to be thumped by an Anthony Elwine tackle that caused him to drop it. Thereafter he had it a further nine times, running and passing twice, simply passing three times, mauling, kicking and being tackled once each and dropping it once more.

This, especially in the context of a dismal team performance, was not a bad afternoon's work, though it was scarcely greeted with ecstasy by his coaches. 'He is obviously ring-rusty but it has to be good for rugby having Jeremy into a pair of boots,' Gareth Chilcott said. Brian Ashton added: 'He played as well as I expected him to do in his first game back.'

The star syndrome being alien to Bath, of more concern to Ashton was the way the champions had eked out a tight victory not familiarly, through their own last- ditch surging effort, but through a dependency on West's inability to convert umpteen opportunites - especially the three late penalty attempts that went to waste. 'I have never seen a Bath side miss so many tackles,' Ashton grumbled.

As it was, West scored three tries to Bath's two and played thrillingly inventive and effective rugby marred only by the persistent backchat to David Leslie and general want of self-control that betrayed a mixture of unfamiliarity and inexperience. Barry Taylor, their Australian coach, summed it up thus: 'We won the rugby and lost the discipline.'

West were every bit as good as they had been in beating Wasps last month, prompting Ashton to give them this paradoxical warning: 'If they can't win a game like that when they have so many chances, maybe that's the difference between being at the top and at the bottom.'

Taylor hardly needs reminding that West stand in penultimate position, but to have run Bath so close ought at the very least to create credibility or confidence. 'One of the good things you do is write us off all the time,' he told inquisitive reporters who he reasonably described as 'the ugliest bunch I've ever seen'.

'It's an Australian thing if you are underdogs: in your bum and let's see what we can do.' I think it's clear what he means, but then as Taylor is the product of Anglo- New Zealand stock he is probably even more confused than the rest of us. This was actually a rather downbeat assessment of a performance that was far more than the up-and-at-'em of a determined outsider.

The first try, for instance, was as brilliant as anything anyone present at Brierton Lane will ever see. When Ben Clarke lost the ball in the act of touching down, you might have thought West would have thanked the deity and gratefully settled for a scrum. Not at all: behind his line, Alan Brown began a counter-attack that three times involved West's influential Kiwi captain, Alan Hodder, before the outstanding Mick Watson galloped the final 40 yards for a try at the far end.

The fine tries that followed by David Cooke and Hodder himself suffered only because of the impossible comparison with Watson's. At the same time Bath's two, both by their heroic captain, John Hall, enjoyed the fortuitous assistance of dubious refereeing decisions. Clarke ran in an obstructive position at the free-kick that led to the first and Leslie's long-distance ruling that Kevin Whitaker had knocked on before the second was at fault.

Unable to bear the tension, Taylor was left invoking higher authority when it came down to the penalties with which West failed to win the match. Tim Stimpson missed the first, John Stabler the second and, when it came to the third, Hodder settled for experience and Stabler missed again. 'I wasn't watching; I was praying,' the coach said. 'I must have stuffed up somewhere because He didn't help me.'

Guscott, on the other hand, will soon be the answer to England's prayers as well as those of Bath. 'Passing, tackling and decision- making are the fundamentals of rugby and I managed two of them,' he said. 'I was a bit off the pace but I was always going to have a fight to keep up. I made some elementary mistakes, which was only to be expected, but the team covered up for me.'

It was generous of Guscott to say so but about the cover-up Ashton, for one, would disagree. It was both a great West Hartlepool display and so ghastly a one by Bath that if it were repeated next Saturday they would certainly lose to Leicester, who have already - if only on points difference - dislodged them from the top.

West Hartlepool: Tries Watson, Cooke, Hodder; Penalty Stimpson. Bath: Tries Hall 2; Conversions Callard 2; Penalty Callard; Drop goal Catt.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson; K Whitaker, A Elwine, P Hodder (capt), D Cooke; J Stabler, S Cook; D Rusby, S Mitchell, M Shelley, J Dixon, K Westgarth, D Mitchell, M Watson, A Brown.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, J Guscott, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; M Catt, S Johnson; D Hilton, G Dawe, C Clark, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, S Ojomoh.

Referee: D Leslie (Preston).

(Photograph omitted)