Rugby Union: Nicol's tactics spoil Best's courting days

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London Irish 35 Bath 49

AFTER edging closer to the league leaders, the Bath coach, Andy Robinson, was already looking forward to a heavyweight contest with Saracens on Good Friday. One of Bath's three defeats was to the London club in December and it fairly ruined Robinson's Christmas. "That loss still bugs me," Robinson said. Easter will be a time for recompense.

Bath safely negotiated a tricky visit to Sunbury, where Dick Best has been performing minor miracles in revitalising the Irish, and you would never have guessed it was a match between a club going for the title and another trying to avoid relegation.

The foundation of Bath's victory by seven tries to four was laid by an overwhelmingly superior scrummage. It was the only area in which the Irish, who desperately missed Gary Halpin, came out second best, although they made life considerably easier for Bath with some elementary handling errors.

Andy Nicol had one of his most influential games for the European Cup holders. Apart from scoring two tries, he sensibly decided that Bath would do to the Irish what the Irish traditionally do to their opponents: he subjected them to the garryowen.

Despite fielding an all-international threequarter line, Bath were vulnerable in midfield, particularly to the crash tackling of Mark McCall. When Nicol and Matt Perry hoisted up and unders they were richly rewarded, Ieuan Evans scoring two simple tries. Bath also enjoyed the luck of the Irish.

Under Best the Exiles, considerably reinforced by the South African Brendan Venter at centre and the Australian Nick Harvey in the second-row, had won three league games on the trot and it was particularly galling to lose on Saturday after scoring 35 points. It is a measure of their improvement that the players acknowledged that after trailing 30-13 at half-time, they would have conceded 70 points in the bad old days.

Best, formerly of England and Harlequins, arrived at Sunbury with a handshake. If he stays beyond the end of the season, it probably depends on whether the Irish are still playing Premiership One rugby.

"We are courting," Best said. "And it may end in marriage. The relationship could be consummated when we escape relegation. It's a joy to be here. There's a different ethos, a different culture and the players are receptive and committed. I'm getting a big buzz out of it."

If Robinson is itching for a rematch with Saracens, 25 April cannot come soon enough for Best. It is the date of the Exiles next home match, against Harlequins. When the Quins parted company with Big Dick it was not on the best of terms.

London Irish: Tries: Feaunati 2, Richards, penalty try; Conversions: Woods 3; Penalties: Woods 3.

Bath: Tries: Evans 2, Nicol 2, Guscott, Peters, penalty try; Conversions: Callard 4; Penalties: Butland, Callard.

London Irish: D Charles; J Bishop, B Venter, M McCall, N Woods; D Humphreys, P Richards; L Mooney, R Kellam (T Redmond, 64), I McLaughlin (J Fitzpatrick, 40), N Harvey (capt), G Fulcher (M O'Kelly, 40), K Spicer (C Bird, 62), I Feaunati, K Dawson.

Bath: M Perry; I Evans, P de Glanville, J Guscott, A Adebayo (I Balshaw, 70); R Butland (J Callard 14), A Nicol (capt); D Hilton, M Regan, V Ubogu (J Mallett, 69), M Haag, N Redman, R Earnshaw, E Peters, R Bryan.

Referee: P Thomas (France).