RUGBY UNION: Hall's hackles raised by leaden Leicester

Error enables Bath to overrun champions as England captain inspires Harlequins to stretch winning start
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The Independent Online
There is too long a road ahead for Bath's victory at Leicester yet to be considered decisive in the Courage Clubs' Championship. But this may eventually turn out to be the case and, if so, the match was unworthy of such an elevated status. Why, even Dean Richards was shown the yellow card for foul play.

Perhaps the 16,000-plus who filled Welford Road, including for the first time the spanking new Alliance & Leicester Stand, should have known. If there has been one certainty about English club rugby other than that Leicester and Bath will dominate it, it is that after all the build-up Leicester v Bath can be the most awful let-down.

Saturday's was another case in point, the final, frenzied 19 minutes making up for the desultory first 61 only for those with short memories. As ever, everything was right - even the weather - for the best teams in England to give of their best; as ever, they coped with each other better than they did with the cloying atmosphere and overwhelming significance of the occasion.

That the outcome, 14-9 to Bath, was resolved by one among a litany of mistakes was perfectly reflective not only of the match but also of the attitudes, aspirations and priorities apparent in the English game. For an hour defences dominated, to the destruction of creativity and the nullification of ambition.

The scores were level through two penalties each by John Liley and Jonathan Callard when Neil Back's capricious pass eluded Liley and fell into the arms of Adedayo Adebayo, who comfortably outstripped Niall Malone over 65 yards before making a wholly unnecessary swallow dive that left some Tigers questioning whether he had validly grounded the ball.

And then, as if by preordination, what happens? It had taken Leicester - they of the much-vaunted intention to play "wide" rugby - 47 minutes to get the ball as far as outside centre (and then to a flanker, John Wells), but as soon as Bath had a try they miraculously freed up their minds and bodies.

They still lost, but it is reasonable to suggest that if this metamorphosis had taken place earlier, before they were chasing the game, Bath would have gone west for the third time running (if that's the expression) from Welford Road. "We do try to play like that but why it's not happening we don't know," Tony Russ, coaching director, said.

Even the Tigers themselves - certainly their coach, Ian Smith - are critical of the rugby that won them last season's title and here they were back to their tryless ways, raising their followers' greatest passions by seeking pushovers during a five-scrum series at the end of the first half.

These were probably more decisive moments than those preceding Adebayo's try, not only because of the psychological stimulus they gave Bath but by demonstrating how very narrow was Leicester's vision. The new rugby philanthropist, Sir John Hall of Newcastle, who had had lunch with the Leicester president, Peter Wheeler, watched the first half before leaving for Spain. Very smart.

Not that Sir John knows anything much about rugby but his advisers would know a good second row when they see one, in which case Newcastle RFC Ltd should immediately launch a takeover bid for Martin Johnson, the finest front- jumping forward in the world.

Johnson personally, more even than Leicester collectively, was Bath's biggest (6ft 7in) problem and, manfully though Martin Haag and Nigel Redman strove, they did not win a single line-out on the Tigers' throw. Richard Cockerill's task as thrower is straightforward in that if he finds Johnson, as he did 15 times on Saturday, possession is automatic.

This curtailed Bath's options, there being no point in giving the ball away by kicking it out of play, and had the beneficial effect that they at least tried to move the ball around, if only because they had to. In the event, it availed them nothing and anyway Leicester dutifully killed the rucks each time tries seemed possible, but it did prompt the new Bath manager into an acerbic response. John Hall (no relation) said: "We were the side who were trying to play rugby and it was not until later in the game, when Leicester saw the game was going away from them, that they tried to run the ball. If that's fast, attacking rugby, I stand corrected."

Hall, the past two seasons' captain, is learning the excruciating way how his old coach, Jack Rowell, felt while watching Bath and now feels while watching England. Possibly his asperity was stimulated in part by the football-style murmurings of the Leicester crowd; in this respect Sir John would have felt right at home.

They were more justified in slow-handclapping the belated kick-off (the third week in a row Sky's 5.05 match has been given the bird) than they ever were the Welsh referee or Bath. Liley, having added his third penalty, missed another and at the death Callard also kicked his third, Tony Rowlands's punishment of a piece of fairly obvious obstruction predictably raising another prolonged jeer.

Callard's kick was the last of the match and Hall the younger could finally relax. "That was a very nerve-racking game," he said. "It's difficult when you've spent so much time playing and can't go out and do something about it. But I'm more relaxed than Jack Rowell ever was - or is. Jack would have left the stadium with five minutes to go."

Leicester: Penalties Liley 3. Bath: Try Adebayo; Penalties Callard 3.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, R Robinson, R Underwood; N Malone, J Hamilton; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Bath: J Callard; A Lumsden, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, A Nicol; K Yates, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: A Rowlands (Treorchy).

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