Rugby Union Commentary: Ryan and Smith left whistling in the wind: Irish referee is criticised at Sudbury where Bath have to dig deep in order to survive late buzz by Wasps

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The Independent Online
HOW tiresome it is that when Bath, the almost perennial champions, play Wasps, their almost perennial closest contenders, the referee rather than two fine sides should perennially be the subject of debate.

On the other hand perhaps it is not so surprising, however regrettable. Bath have set the benchmark for the rest of English club rugby and if you imagine you are getting closer - as Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, certainly does - it is unspeakably galling when refereeing decisions go against you. Even more unspeakable when you lose by only 19-13.

Last season's showdown at the Rec centred on David Matthews's debatable dismissal of Fran Clough when Wasps led 6-0. They then lost. The first of this season's two, as far as Wasps were concerned anyway, rested on the contentious decisions of Gordon Black, an Irishman who awarded Ben Clarke a try that should have been denied and denied Ryan one that should have been awarded.

That, at any rate, was the Wasps version - and, as even the Bath players shared this view of Clarke's, it seems there was a miscarriage of justice. Whether it altered the result is another matter. 'He knew he'd made a mistake with Ben's try and after that he started to give them everything,' the mischievous Stuart Barnes suggested.

Which means that, though either Wasps or Bath could have won at Sudbury on Saturday, the poor old referee had no chance. According to Ryan, he was so badly positioned that he could not have seen the lunge for the line by Clarke that ended with Ryan beneath him and short of the Wasps line. Result: a try.

Again, according to Ryan, he himself touched down on or over the line from the tap-penalty move which was effectively Wasps' last gasp. Here Bath begged to differ, claiming that in any case it was a double movement which should have been penalised, though another alternative version - that of the Wasps coach, Rob Smith - had it that it should have been a penalty try for persistent offences.

The corollary of all this was that Ryan and Smith would like referees to consult their touch judges, who are better positioned to see what is happening. Good idea, except that present laws allow intervention only for foul play, even if in practice good refereeing sometimes entails more collusion with touch judges than is obvious to the casual observer. 'If the linesman has information, let him give it,' Smith added, sensibly.

One imagines he would have been talking about something else if Wasps had actually pulled it off instead of murmuring in the what- might-have-been aftermath of a defeat which leaves them five points adrift. The field behind Bath is spreading out as the league goes into a four-week hiatus for the

Divisional Championship.

By Christmas the title could well be even more securely in the champions' grip, certainly if they win at Leicester on 27 November. And by Christmas the players concerned - at Bath, Wasps, Leicester and any other club who supply numbers of players to the divisions - could be on their knees.

So they get a break from the league and what happens? The divisionals, the All Blacks, and then back to the league. 'The players are going to be in a heap before Christmas,' Jack Rowell, the Bath coach, said, putting it another way. Smith said: 'The top players in this country are going to become jaded and tired.'

The proof of this will not come until the Five Nations' Championship in the New Year, but it is a fair point which supports the now-familiar contention that it is unreasonable to expect a professional commitment from amateur sportsmen. Smith should know: the M4 is a combination of familiar friend and mind-numbing necessity as he travels all the way from Bristol to north London for training and matches.

He was relieved as much as pleased that, after their thrashing at Leicester the previous week, his team had restored their pride. Bath had not been done any favours by events at Welford Road, since they then caught Wasps on the rebound but in any case, as Smith noted, every team who play Bath have to raise themselves - or perish.

For the most part Saturday's game stuttered along, error-strewn though seldom short of ambition. Wasps swung the ball about but tended to make less headway than Bath and so turned round 9-3 down: three penalties by Jonathan Callard to one by Rob Andrew.

Barnes surprised himself as much as the Wasps pack by scurrying through the lot of them in building up to Mike Catt's try for Bath, and when John Hall pinched the ball from Wasps hands to set up Clarke's allegedly bogus try Bath appeared to be giving as conclusive an away performance as they could conceivably have anticipated.

Not so. Two minutes remained when Childs's play concluded a move that had also involved Bates, Greenwood and Andrew and, if we are to believe Ryan, in the event that was sufficient for Wasps to strike again. 'We have clearly shown that Bath are very, very vulnerable,' Ryan said. This may be overstating the case but anyway the trouble for Wasps, Leicester et al is that, however vulnerable they may like to think Bath, all of them are more vulnerable still.

Wasps: Try Childs; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 2. Bath: Tries Catt, Clarke; Penalties Callard 3.

Wasps: A Buzza (M Skinner, 68); P Hopley, G Childs, D Hopley, C Oti (L Dallaglio, 55); R Andrew, S Bates; G Holmes, K Dunn, J Probyn, R Kinsey, D Ryan (capt), M Greenwood, C Wilkins, M White.

Bath: J Callard; A Adebayo, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Lumsden; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe (C Atkins, 55-60), V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: G Black (Ireland).

(Photograph omitted)