Harlequins. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13
HAIL and farewell. Two of the figures central to Bath's phenomenal success during the last decade, Jack Rowell and Richard Hill, made their exits from the Recreation Ground in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Bath's victory, an overwhelming one, secured their fourth successive Courage League title, a record which may never be surpassed, and in their ruthless dispatch of Harlequins, they confirmed their fearsome reputation as the serial winners in English rugby.
Hill has played many better games for Bath than this one. Indeed, for most of the first half, his passing was wretchedly off-line, but there could not have been a more appropriate climax to his distinguished career in front of the adoring crowd which has given him such succour over the years. Possibly as a result of the interruption in Hill's normally smooth service, and certainly in the absence of the injured Mike Catt, Bath's backs lacked their cutting edge, their distribution was shoddy and their running often lacked conviction. But such was the overpowering dominance of their forwards in the scrums, mauls and line-outs, where Quins scarcely got either a hand or a foot to the ball, that it would not have mattered had the backs failed to turn up.
Having beaten so many different paths to the Harlequins line, Bath found that the most effective route was through their pack. Andy Reed and Nigel Redman can seldom have enjoyed a more productive afternoon in the line-out and in the scrums, Quins' embattled front row, without Jason Leonard and Brian Moore, were flung into reverse every time.
This time there was no hiding place for Quins and, unlike the cup encounter between the sides three weeks ago, there was to be no way back for them. They could not escape the clutches of Bath's forwards, whose controlled ferocity laid the foundations for all four tries. Ben Clarke's try came after 10 minutes of remorseless rugby and a series of strength-sapping scrums and mauls on the Harlequins' lines. The second and third were also constructed from scrummage possession; the first after a heel against a head had allowed Phil de Glanville the time and space to dart through a startled defence, the third when Clarke picked up, ran unhindered past the unguarded fringe and fed John Hall. Bath's fourth try may not win the award for the most imaginative of the season but, from conception to delivery, it will undoubtedly rank as one of the longest. Redman won a line-out on the Quins' 10-metre line and Bath carried the maul 35 yards for Dave Hilton to score fully a minute and a half later.
Thereafter, Harlequins, having given up the ghost in the tight, threatened to surrender on all fronts. Callard kicked his second penalty and, with the backs having regained their touch, it took a magnificent tackle by Kent Bray to prevent Adedayo Adebayo from scoring in the corner.
But there were remnants of pride left. Gavin Thompson scored close to the Bath posts and Bray kicked the conversion to add to his two penalties. Quins may have been utterly powerless to deny Bath the victory and the title but by the tameness of their overall performances, they did deny their opponents the thrill of the chase, and had the title depended on points difference, there might well have been a steward's inquiry into the result.
But that is the problem of operating a so-called amateur game in a professional structure erected and maintained by sponsors' cash.
There had been times during the campaign when Bath looked as if they might not have the stamina to survive the long journey. Fatigue brought on by the most intensely competitive season in the game's history, and by the heavy grounds, began to take its toll. But this was when Bath displayed their true mettle. They came through triumphantly and in the last month have rediscovered the zest of old.
It was game, set and match points to Bath, whose name will again be engraved on the trophy for the fourth season in a row and for the fifth time in the seven years since the inception of the competition.
Bath: Tries Clarke, De Glanville, Hall, Hilton; Penalties Callard 2; Conversion Callard. Harlequins: Tries Thompson; Penalty Bray; Conversion Bray.
Bath: J Callard; T Swift, P de Glanville, A Adebayo, A Lumsden; S Barnes, R Hill; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, A Robinson, J Hall (capt), B Clarke.
Harlequins: K Bray; J Keyter, W Carling, G Thompson, D O'Leary; P Challinor, C Luxton; S Brown, J Hamilton-Smith, A Mullins (capt), A Snow, T Coker, M Russell, M Pepper, J Cassell.
Referee: J Pearson (RFU).