Rugby Union Commentary: Lyle pins Tigers to bed of nails

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The Independent Online
The Masters? Pah, piece of cake. Miss the cut in Atlanta and you pack your clubs, check out of your hotel as dawn is breaking and catch the first flight home before anyone notices. Miss the cut at the Recreation Ground, as Leicester did on Saturday, and there is no such early escape; no matter how bad it gets, you are in it up to your neck for the duration.

Nine weeks after giving Bath the bum's rush from the Pilkington Cup with a striking display of fast and athletic rugby, Dean Richards' double-chasing hopefuls returned to the Rec in rather poorer physical shape. To a man, they were either tired to the point of exhaustion, injured to the point of incapacitation or, in some cases, both. It would be an unequal struggle, rather like taking on Tiger Woods over 36 holes with two crutches and a walking stick in your golf bag.

To make things worse for the Midlanders, it was very much a Bath kind of day: hot sun, firm surface, big crowd, an incendiary whiff of revenge in the air. There were so many points waiting to be made out there - by Federico Mendez and German Llanes, anxious to prove they were more than expensive white elephants; by Mike Catt and Adedayo Adebayo, keen to flick a couple of "told you so" fingers in the general direction of the Lions selectors - that the Rec was less a rugby pitch than a bed of nails.

And it was Leicester who were forced to lie on it while Bath inflicted on them a 47-9 shellacking, their heaviest defeat in a decade of league competition. "What price the double now?" someone asked Bob Dwyer, the Tigers' coach. "We've next to nil chance of winning the league," he replied. "The sheer volume of matches played by the more successful sides has made it a handicap event. If you're winning, they seem to put lead weights in your pockets. Until that changes, a double or treble will be incredibly difficult."

None of which brought tears to the eyes of Andy Robinson, his counterpart at Bath. "I can't say I have too much sympathy for Leicester," he smiled. "We've had to play under that sort of pressure for years and come out with a trophy, sometimes, two, most seasons. What I will say is this: it takes a little luck with injuries to win a Double, but you also need some very special people who will dig deep, give everything of themselves."

In Robinson's opinion, Bath have emerged chastened but infinitely wiser from a pit of their own making and are heading once again for the sunlit uplands. There was plenty of evidence to support that view on Saturday, as Dwyer readily conceded.

"They played with enormous skill and power and were wonderfully unstructured once they got their tails up," he said. "We saw Mendez on the left wing, Llanes running off the outside-half, Dan Lyle at outside centre. I've got no beef about it. They were exceptional."

Ah, Lyle. If this has been America's century, it is somehow appropriate that the son of a two-star general in the US Army should suddenly appear over here and teach us how to play a game that does not even register in the consciousness of his own countrymen. Offered a gridiron contract in Minnesota last spring that might conceivably have earned him $500,000 (pounds 320,000) a year - "a flat $200,000 plus incentives for every catch, every tackle, every victory," was how he summed it up on Saturday - he turned his back on his national pastime and committed himself to a pioneering season with Bath.

What virtuosity he displayed against the Tigers. He rucked and mauled like Eric Miller with knobs on, stopped the Leicester runners in their tracks with the kind of wrap-up tackles patented by the great Deano himself and when it came to the aerial battle at line-outs and restarts, he was more Magic Johnson than Martin Johnson. "Blimey," blinked Dwyer afterwards. "The Aussie Rules guys back home could sure use someone like that."

Lyle's try in the left corner with a quarter of an hour left on the clock just about encapsulated the "interactive" nature of Bath's display (Jack Rowell's in-word and, yes, he was there to see it). The home midfield pulled enough rabbits out of the hat to win a good position deep in the Leicester 22 and when the Tigers realised that they were staring a four- on-two overlap in the face and raced across field to fill the gaping holes, Llanes was cute enough to drive the maul in the opposite direction and open the door for his colleague.

Thanks to the bankable expertise of their line-out, Leicester were in touch until the very end of the first half, when Phil de Glanville fly- hacked a loose ball through for Adebayo, quite sensational on the day, to complete the opening try. Lucky Bath? Not really. Leicester's planned move backfired because the home scrummagers squeezed the pips from the vaunted ABC club at a set-piece on the right and thus ensured that the Healey-Stransky-Greenwood angles were all to pot. Definitely one for the front row union and not a rolling maul in sight.

Given that the Tigers had spontaneously combusted well before the hour mark, the late flurry of points - Lyle's try, plus two for the cucumber- cool Matt Perry, sent the scoreboard spinning to the tune of 19 points in the final 15 minutes - was almost predictable. What is not predictable is how a clapped-out Leicester outfit containing six Lions will react to the challenge of regenerating themselves in time for the league run- in, a cup final with super-enthusiastic Sale and the small matter of a seven-week route march through South Africa. Can you buy Zimmer frames in Johannesburg?

Bath: Tries Adebayo 2, Perry 2, Mendez, Lyle. Conversions Catt 2, Callard 2. Penalties Catt 3. Leicester: Penalties Stransky 3.

Bath: M Perry; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Callard, 69), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; K Yates, F Mendez, J Mallett, G Llanes, M Haag, R Webster, D Lyle (B Cusack, 74), N Thomas (S Ojomoh, h-t).

Leicester: J Liley (R Edwards, 57); S Hackney (R Underwood, 30), S Potter, W Greenwood (N Malone 62), C Joiner; J Stransky (W Drake-Lee, 80), A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole (N Fletcher, 77), E Miller, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).