Rugby Union: Europe truce is the spur for Bath

Saracens 14 Bath 33
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KNOWING BATH, they still consider themselves European champions; after all, no-one actually relieved them of their precious title in what rugby coaches lovingly refer to as a match situation. Quite how much motivation they took from Saturday's cross-border peace declaration in Paris was anyone's guess but, judging by the way Iain Balshaw, Matt Perry, Kevin Maggs and, let's be fair to the man for once, Mike Catt tore into Saracens at Vicarage Road yesterday after-noon, the prospect of next season's new-look continental tournament has already set a few lips smacking down Somerset way.

Balshaw, in particular, hit the ground running and, with an ocean of teenage energy oozing from every pore, he did not stop until he dived into the after-match showers. His blinding hat-trick of tries announced Bath's sudden resurgence as one of the Allied Dunbar Premiership's big hitters and condemned the Londoners to their heaviest defeat in two seasons. It was a bad end to a rough week for Saracens, who had just completed a painful culling process by off-loading the best part of a dozen out- of-contract players.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Sarries looked and played as though they had just been through the torments of hell. They had no defence worthy of the name - so statuesque were they in midfield that they might have been coached by Rodin rather than Francois Pienaar - and once the spindly Balshaw had cruised onto the end of a four-man overlap to open up a 14- 7 lead at the break, the home side disintegrated. "I've suffered some of the worst results of my career this season and that, let me tell you, was as bad as any," groaned Pienaar through gritted teeth.

For Bath, who won their Heineken Cup crown on a spine-tingling day in Bordeaux 14 months ago but had barely collected a meaningful scalp since, it was almost as if the English clubs' boycott of Europe had never happened.

They were quick, direct and endlessly inventive, despite the fact that Jeremy Guscott's late withdrawal - a decision dictated by a dodgy hamstring rather than his impending court appearance on an assault charge - left the visitors with a back division only recently out of kindergarten. "We have some very talented rugby players," said Andy Robinson, the club coach, who nonetheless feared for his youngsters when the maestro pulled out. "We've now won four away matches out of five and the confidence is beginning to return."

Much as he had done throughout the continental stand-off, Robinson stuck rigidly to the party line yesterday. "We boycotted Europe for a reason and, in so far as we had to get things sorted out, it was a good reason," he said. "It hurt, of course, but we were not the only ones hurting. Newcastle sacrificed their place. So did Saracens and so did Leicester. I'm delighted we're back in, obviously, but we're only in as a nation at the moment. What we have to do at Bath is work hard, prevent results like this going to our heads and get involved as a club. Top six is the call and it won't be easy."

Predictably enough, the entire rugby world and its wife has been quick to claim credit for the Paris accord: depending on whatever myopic band of parlour politicians you happen to be listening to, the agreement was a personal triumph for any one of Vernon Pugh, Tom Kiernan, Fran Cotton, Bill Beaumont, Brian Baister, Francis Baron, Tom Walkinshaw, Bernard Lapasset, Serge Blanco or Tony Banks. (That last is meant to be a joke, but given the scale of the stampede for self-glorification and petty point-scoring, it would be foolish to rule out anyone). The truth, of course, is that both sides, European Rugby Cup Ltd and the English clubs, gave significant ground in pursuit of a win-win outcome that should underpin the northern hemisphere game until 2007.

On the one hand, Walkinshaw and company have agreed to call time on their hugely contentious attempt to establish a range of independent commercial rights under European law. On the other, ERC have granted almost 56 per cent of the voting rights on the new board to the Anglo-French bloc and guaranteed the two major nations 50 per cent of the available revenue. Those are big concessions in anyone's currency; among the reasons the English walked out in the first place was dissatisfaction at the distribution of monies and sheer frustration at the combined voting power wielded by Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Under the terms of the weekend agreement, next year's tournament will involve 24 teams: six each from England and France, five from Wales, three from Ireland and two apiece from Scotland and Italy. In the 2000-2001 season, the elite nature of the competition will be intensified by cutting the entry to 20. England and France are guaranteed four entrants each - in England's case, the top three of the Premiership plus the cup winners - with a minimum of two from the other nations. The remaining four places will go to the countries providing the previous season's semi- finalists.

There are some itchy problems still bubbling beneath the surface, notably in Wales where the Cardiff-Swansea issue continues to make grown men weep into their pints of flat bitter. But if the Welsh cannot seize the moment and tap into the mood of restraint and reconciliation, they never will. Who knows? Perhaps Cotton and his Reform Group colleagues will now withdraw their vote of no-confidence in the Rugby Football Union management board, save a world-weary sport yet another special general meeting and bury the hatchet once and for all. This fresh but fragile European landscape needs a Luddite rebellion like Bill Clinton needed the Starr Report.

"I'm so, so pleased we're involved in Europe again," said Pienaar yesterday and, despite the 80 minutes he had just endured, the smile of relief was genuine. Will the truce hold, or will the politicians manage to hurl another toolbox full of spanners into the complex machinery of this much-abused game? If the latter turns out to be the case, some poor soul will have to answer to a very large Springbok with a point to prove.

Saracens: Tries Hill, Grau; Conversions Thirlby 2. Bath: Tries Balshaw 3, Peters, Cooper; Conversions Catt 4.

Saracens: R Thirlby; R Constable, J Thomson (S Ravenscroft, 55), K Sorrell, B Lea (M Singer, 41); A Penaud (W Stanley, 31), M Powell; R Grau (B Reidy, 75), G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns (K Chesney, 55), C Yandell, R Hill, A Diprose, F Pienaar (capt).

Bath: M Perry (T Adebayo, 60); I Balshaw, K Maggs, M Tindall (J Callard, 71), A Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper; D Hilton (J Mallett, 82), M Regan (L Mears, 68), V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, E Peters (capt), D Lyle, R Earnshaw.

Referee: G Warren (Bristol).