Rugby Union: Nervous triumph for Bath

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Saracens. . .13

Bath. . . . . . .19

THERE are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this ragged but hugely entertaining contest at Southgate. Either Saracens are much too good to be playing in the second division next season or else Bath are not good enough for the first.

Whatever it is, and it is most probably the former, Bath will never surely come closer to losing a match, and, more importantly, a title. A drop goal from a line out by the Saracens stand-off Gareth Hughes, his second of the match, eight minutes from time gave Saracens a two-point lead.

It was a stunning strike but, on their second half performance, seemed scant reward for their efforts. Bath and their huge support were rocked to their very foundations but to their eternal credit they came back with the most sumptuously timed movement of the game and, in the circumstances of the entire season.

First of all Stuart Barnes kicked a penalty after Justyn Cassell had been caught off-side and then Barnes hoisted a high kick towards the Saracens 22. Andy Tunningley fielded the ball and simultaneously took Jeremy Guscott's heavy tackle. The ball squirted from his grasp and Phil de Glanville swooped. As if in one movement he scooped the ball off the ground and fed Jon Callard for the try which secured Bath a third consecutive Courage League title and their fourth in the six years of the league's existence.

For gallant Saracens there is now the fearful prospect of the mass plundering of their ranks as they prepare for life in the second division next season. The principal targets are Darren O'Leary, a wing highly rated by England's management, Chris Tarbuck and Cassell. Barry Crawley is another who would attract enviable glances were it not for his determination to remain loyal to the club and for the fact that, at 29, his shelf-life is distinctly limited.

But until he went off injured midway through the first half he was a constant source of aggravation to Bath. His enthusiasm for testing the resolve and commitment of Bath's Lions was clearly upsetting to his opponents. In a contest which flared into sporadic bursts of furious activity during which Bath only occasionally lived up to their billing as the thoroughbreds of the English game, Saracens made them fight every inch of the way.

For long periods in the second half it was Saracens who assumed the role of champions elect and with Brian Davies coming in on the end of Saracens best scrummage of the afternoon they closed the gap which, at half-time had stood at eight points, to just one.

In the first half Saracens' problem had been to win any worthwhile possession. Bath had surged forward at the scrummage, were comfortably in control at the line-out and had pitched in behind Victor Ubogu in the loose. Had Jon Webb taken the three penalty chances on offer, Bath would have been uncatchable. He was eventually relieved by Barnes who kicked two penalties on either side of Bath's first try. A fine effort it was too - an Ubogu drive followed by slick and accurate passing to the day's hero Callard who scored in the corner.

Bath's game, so secure in the first half, went to pieces in the second. They were hustled into basic errors and, remarkably, they relinquished control in the set pieces. There were spells when their line-out was obliterated, and the sight of their forwards in ignominious retreat at the scrums had an inspirational effect on their opponents who had dashed the cup from Bath's lips with almost the last kick of the match three years ago.

That it did not happen again was due to Saracens ability to finish off opponents who were dangling on the ropes but who, with the instincts of the true fighter, had courage and strength enough to fight back when all seemed lost.

Saracens: A Tunningley; D O'Leary, S Ravenscroft, D Dooley, S Reed; G Hughes, R Andrews, B Davies (capt); G Botterman, S Wilson, M Langley, L Adamson, C Tarbuck, B Crawley (T Diprose, 20 min), J Cassell.

Bath: J Webb; T Swift, P de Glanville, J Guscott, J Callard; S Barnes, R Hill; G Chilcott, G Dawe, V Ubogu, A Reed, N Redman, A Robinson (capt), B Clarke, J Hall.

Referee: F Howard (St Helen's)

Scores: Hughes (drop goal, 7 min 3-0), Barnes (pen, 20 min, 3-3), Callard (try, 24 min, 3-8), Barnes (pen, 40 min, 3-11), Davies / Tunningley (try / con, 51 min, 10-11), Hughes (drop goal, 72 min, 13-11), Barnes (pen, 74 min, 13-14), Callard (try, 78 min, 13-19).