Rugby Union / Commentary: Order of Bath is renewed

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a cathartic week for England's champion club, the upshot of inner turmoil being that Bath are happier, and therefore stronger, than ever. To make the point, they did not even have to play well to begin their Courage Championship defence with a 22-6 win over Harlequins.

Rolling over Quins much as they pleased was a pleasingly conclusive conclusion to considerable trouble and strife. The performance was more flawed than is Bath's habit and the game had none of the epic quality of recent encounters between the two but it hardly mattered. The cup final having been consigned to pleasant memory, everyone was back in the old routine.

For Bath this means the ritual accumulation of championship points, for Quins the ritual failure to match great ability with the great consistency that brings league success. This - as Bath have demonstrated year-in, year-out - is as much psychological as physical: at the Recreation Ground defeat would have left them utterly devastated. Not so Harlequins.

All they managed was an early penalty by David Pears followed by a second by Paul Challinor after Pears had been led off, literally shattered, with a triple fracture of the jaw. This was wretched ill fortune just as he had recovered from a neck injury; an operation in London this week will mark the end of his England aspirations for the autumn.

As another frustrated England man, John Hall would sympathise. The Bath flanker, forever recuperating from injury, last played a league match 18 months ago; but for his unbreakable determination, complications after his umpteenth knee operation would have ended his career, yet there he was at the Rec playing almost as if he had never been away.

The Bath selectors' faith in him, pulling him out of a second-team game at Taunton when Andy Robinson withdrew, was thereby vindicated, though by Hall's own admission he was not really ready. But, as the patriarchal coach Jack Rowell has sometimes said, if there was ever a player who performed on one leg as well as on two, it was John Hall; the problem for Bath will be keeping him and the rest of their band of back-row virtuosi content.

The wonder is that so many good players are persuaded to stay and live off a ration of limited opportunities. Strength in depth is a vital element in Bath's persistent success but so, too, is the genius of their leading individuals. Jeremy Guscott, for instance, trundled languidly through most of Saturday's game in that dream-like state of his - only to wake up when the vital opportunity presented itself.

His try, a sublimely typical piece of Bath invention, screamed out for more of the same but instead all we had was 17 points from the unerring boot of Jon Webb. The new laws have made attacking scrums a rarity and Bath did not waste the opportunity. Stuart Barnes went with Richard Hill on the blind side and received Hill's consummate pass before scuttling into a confused defence and finding Guscott.

They were worth more in attack and were seldom troubled in defence. Quins' forwards were too cumbersome to counter Bath's mobility and were in obvious need of the galvanic properties of Peter Winterbottom. Provided he feels fit enough after his hernia operation to turn out for the second team next Saturday, Winterbottom will probably be rushed straight in to lead the first team against Wasps instead.

Bath also have a captain, Robinson, to accommodate (against London Irish) but on-field matters, even the most sensitive selection decisions, have never been any difficulty at the Rec. Off the field, though, it has been different for years, and the hole in the roof of the stand perfectly symbolises the petty divisions which have riven the club. Fortunately the sun shone on Saturday.

This was where new media facilities were supposed by now to have been installed. The inordinate delay is one of the issues which provoked last week's management-committee crisis. What began as a no-confidence motion by the chairman against the secretary became a no-confidence motion against the chairman. He walked out, and the grounds committee chairman went with him.

Few at Saturday's game seemed to mind too much; indeed, one committee man said: 'It's like a dark cloud has lifted.' The meeting when all this happened lasted three and a half hours. 'I've never experienced anything like it in all my life,' another member said. It has been the talk of the Georgian city ever since and on Saturday the local paper, the Evening Chronicle, demanded that Gareth Chilcott, prop and pantomime character, become the new chairman.

'Why is it that Bath enters the new season with a gaping hole in the grandstand roof? Why has the seemingly simple task of building a rooftop position for the TV cameras fallen so far behind schedule? Who was responsible for monitoring progress? When will the job be done?' the Chronicle fulminated.

A more likely candidate than Chilcott, who in any case says he is not interested, is Colin Gale, the treasurer, who as a banker would be better placed than most to run the club along business lines. Somehow Bath managed the impossible by losing approaching pounds 5,000 last season when they were doing the Double.

Imagine what the deficit would have been if the team had been as mediocre as the administration, whose achievements included appointing a catering manager who couldn't cook. Now imagine if Jack Rowell picked an outside-half who couldn't kick. . .no, that really is impossible.

Bath: Try Guscott; Conversion Webb; Penalties Webb 5. Harlequins: Penalties Pears, Challinor.

Bath: J Webb; A Swift, J Guscott, P de Glanville, A Adebayo; S Barnes (capt), R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, J Mallett, N Redman, S O'Leary, J Hall, B Clarke, S Ojomoh.

Harlequins: D Pears (B Short, 20); A Harriman, W Carling, M Evans, M Wedderburn; P Challinor, R Glenister; M Hobley, B Moore (capt), A Mullins, A Snow, S Dear, M Russell, R Langhorn, A Fox.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).

(Photograph omitted)