Rugby Union: Hall on RFU collision course

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Sir John Hall and his lady wife hitched a ride on the Newcastle team bus as it wended its way South-West on Friday night, thereby illustrating the profound nature of rugby's culture change. Sir John was not force- fed 18 pints of bitter, press-ganged into wearing his underpants outside his trousers or ordered to spend the evening with a traffic cone perched on his head - routine treatment for travelling top brass in the good old days - but was rewarded instead with an early return on his multi-million pound investment by a group of employees who know which side their bread is buttered.

"Good bloke, Sir John," enthused John Bentley, the injured Lions wing, as he basked in the reflected glory of his club-mates' successful 20-13 raid on Bath's once unbreachable Recreation Ground stronghold. "He loves his rugby to bits, you know. Absolutely loves it."

Indeed. Sir John loves it so much that not only did he forsake Kenny Dalglish and St James' Park for an endless slog around England's motorway network - "the coach broke down, so perhaps we'll get to fly next time," grinned Bentley - but took an immediate opportunity to reassert his implacable opposition to the counter- reformationists at Twickenham who, he suspects, are intent on undermining the professional club game every which way they can.

"I'm not happy with some of the things that are going on," he said as a prelude to a sweeping condemnation of the Rugby Football Union's new Cliff Brittle-led hierarchy.

"There needs to be an accord between the RFU and the professional clubs because I wonder how long the present agreement, with which I have never been happy, will last. Can we do business with these people? I don't know. I read the comments of people like Fran Cotton and I wonder if they have a hidden agenda for the sport. That agenda is not for club rugby and I'm disturbed that the RFU have cut themselves into our television and sponsorship deals. The clubs simply don't need the RFU to do their deals for them.

"Players are already facing burn-out because of the ridiculous fixture demands placed upon them - a side like Bath should not be in the position of starting a new season with 12 internationals on the injury list - and now we find that the RFU are talking about new competitions over and above those already in place. It's crazy. I'm keen to see a strong national side but we're running businesses here, not just feeder operations for England."

All hunky dory then; another 12 rounds of fraternal throat-shaking in prospect, con- ceivably fought out in the hallowed portals of the European Court. Actually, Sir John's diatribe was considerably more entertaining than the match itself, which produced some thunderous tackling from the Geordies, a truly exceptional try from perhaps the most gifted English back to emerge since Jeremy Guscott, a sending-off and an injury-time winner, yet it conspicuously failed to lift the spirits or establish a foothold in the imagination.

Bath were at sixes and sevens from the off, the absences of Federico Mendez, Andy Nicol, Jon Callard and Gorgeous Gus himself all being felt to an ever-increasing degree. Their line-out was a complete shambles, but they have lived with that particular burden for more than a decade. On Saturday, though, there were other, insurmountable problems: they had no ball-carrying forwards to make Newcastle's one-paced pack sit up and take notice, no control at scrum-half and no reliable goal-kicker, although Mike Catt was inexplicably denied three perfectly good penalty points by the all-too-conspicuous referee, Steve Lander, and his touch judges.

The visitors, meanwhile, allowed chance after chance to slip away during the hour-long stranglehold exerted by Doddie Weir, Dean Ryan and their heavy-duty midfield musclemen, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Alan Tait. Tuigamala's hands let him down more than once, but his almost unnatural ability to stand tall in the tackle and off-load the ball to any one of a swarm of colleagues hovering like bees around his mile-wide shoulders marked him out as a pervasive influence.

It was Tuigamala who claimed the first try seven minutes into the second half, taking straightforward advantage of Tait's gallop through a couple of powder-puff tackles following a sweet tail-gunner's line-out delivery from the fiercely competitive Ryan. The score put Newcastle 13-3 ahead, and with Bath a man light - Nathan Thomas, their Welsh flanker, had been dismissed for some none-too-fancy footwork at a 39th-minute ruck - the odds on an unexpected victory for the top-flight newcomers were suddenly very short indeed.

Unwisely, they decided to shut up shop and sit on their advantage, which was red rag to the Bath bull. Catt cut the deficit with the simplest of penalties, and when the bewilderingly versatile Matthew Perry, - shunted from centre to full-back when Callard pulled out shortly before the kick- off - picked an oblique angle off the side of a ruck and left the Newcastle defence more flat-footed than Charlie Chaplin in snow shoes to score at the posts, the contest was even once more.

As Clive Woodward, the Bath coach, said afterwards, Perry is an "absolutely outstanding talent, one of the few Englishmen under the age of 21 who possesses genuine international class." Woodward believes the youngster's real strengths lay in midfield - "He'll push Jerry and he'll push Phil de Glanville. He's right there already" - although his cucumber-cool confidence in any one of six positions gives him options galore.

Sadly for Bath, Perry's talents do not extend to the line-out. Having pulled themselves back from the brink, the West Countrymen fouled up two consecutive throws in the final minute and gave Newcastle a positional platform from which they presented Stuart Legg, a wing replacement for the injured Tony Underwood, a free ride in for the wrap-up score. "It's all about getting the discipline right and we didn't manage it," groaned Andy Robinson, Bath's head coach. Nathan Thomas will not be alone in feeling guilty.

Bath: Try Perry; Conversion Catt; Penalties Catt 2. Newcastle: Tries Tuigamala, Legg; Conversions Stimpson 2; Penalties Stimpson 2.

Bath: M Perry; M Wood, P de Glanville (capt), J Pritchard, B Roche; M Catt, C Harrison; K Yates (D Hilton, 61), G French (M Regan, h-t), V Ubogu, M Haag (B Cusack, 61), N Redman, R Webster (N Thomas, 30), E Peters, R Earnshaw.

Newcastle: T Stimpson; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, A Tait, T Underwood (S Legg, 26); R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van-Zandvliet, G Archer, G Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).