Rugby Union: Legg's last-gasp reward

Bath 13 Newcastle 20
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The Independent Online
Rob Andrew, commenting in a national newspaper last week, threatened that the top clubs in England would break away should the Rugby Football Union seek primacy of contract with the country's top players. The questions that must be asked after this grizzly contest yesterday is where would they go and who in their right minds would have them? This was a thoroughly unappealing match saved only by a rousing and courageous fightback by a depleted Bath side and it was a wretched advertisement for First Division rugby.

There were, of course, all manner of excuses. The first competetive match of the season, the paralysing fear of failure, the humid conditions and, in Bath's case, the fact that for more than half the match they had to play with 14 men after Nathan Thomas, who was only on the field as a temporary replacement for Richard Webster, was sent off for booting an opponent. What made the fracas all the more distasteful was the fact that Dean Ryan, Newcastle's volatile captain, was unable to restrain himself and entered the fray fists flying. His punishment was the yellow card.

It was an appropriately shabby end to a first half of low-quality rugby overflowing with elementary error and tactical incompetence. During that time only six points were scored, two penalties kicked by Tim Stimpson who also missed three others. No matter, Mike Catt missed twice for Bath after their promisingly crisp and business-like start subsided into mediocrity.

For Bath, who had almost as many internationals missing through injury as Newcastle had playing, it was always going to be a difficult day. Ten pre-season casualties is an inordinately high number and is either incredibly bad luck or devilishly hard training. If it is the latter there should be a serious review of Bath's fitness management. All the more remarkable then that Bath should perform so much better when they were in reduced circumstances which, in all honesty, was not all that difficult. But, having gone level at 13-13 10 minutes from time they held on bravely until the full 80 minutes were up.

It was then that Jim Naylor broke down the right and from the ruck Newcastle ran the ball to the irresistible hulk Va'aiga Tuigamala in midfield. He drew what was left of Bath's threadbare cover and Stuart Legg, the replacement for Tony Underwood, was presented with the simplest of tries which Stimpson converted.

If it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Bath, they had contributed massively to their own problems. Charlie Harrison had a torrid time at the base of the scrum taking all manner of wrong options and next to him Catt had a shocker. The height of his profligacy was his failure to find touch with three penalties in the first half from which Bath might reasonably have expected to regain the possession their backs craved. With young Matt Perry playing a blinder from full-back Bath had the chances. Perry's weaving run from a seemingly hopeless position provided the Bath try and the best moment of the match. The full-back also made a number of crucial tackles; one on Naylor saved a certain try.

If Bath were guilty of reckless waste Newcastle were equally at fault. Stimpson's running from full-back was a constant menace and twice he exposed Phil de Glanville's lack of pace. With sharper finishing Newcastle could have scored three times in the first half but had to wait until seven minutes into the second before Alan Tait ricocheted off a couple of half- hearted tackles and found Tuigamala at his shoulder. From that point on it should have been plain sailing for Newcastle but they offered Bath a lifeline and the spectators a brief spell of belated entertainment. It was the least they deserved.

Bath: M Perry; M Wood (R Butland, 71-73), P de Glanville (capt), J Pritchard, B Roche; M Catt, C Harrison; K Yates (D Hilton, 62), G French (M Regan, 40), V Ubogu, M Haag (B Cusack, 61), N Redman, R Earnshaw, E Peters, R Webster (N Thomas, 35).

Newcastle: T Stimpson; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, A Tait, T Underwood (S Legg, 27); R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, P Van Zandvliet, G Archer, D Weir, P Lam, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).