Leicester. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9
FILL a great stadium with 68,000 and you expect, and even demand, a great spectacle. Which certainly does not mean players fractiously making spectacles of themselves as those of Bath, already league champions, and Leicester, defending cup- holders, occasionally did for the benefit of television's watching millions in the Pilkington Cup final.
But it is necessary to get this into perspective. The game was admitted by all to have been a disappointment, the more so as a world-record crowd for a club fixture was in attendance. It did have its moments, however, notably those that led to Bath's two winning tries in the second half, and English rugby's two finest sides had the incontrovertible excuse of a filthy afternoon.
An excuse for their rugby, that is, and not for their conduct, though this, too, should not be exaggerated. Ed Morrison spoke twice to the captains and there was too much that was unnecessarily confrontational. Most obviously, Victor Ubogu threw a right hook at Martin Johnson - England's uncomradely Nos 3 and 4 at odds - and on another occasion might have been dismissed for it.
And that would have put him out of the imminent England tour of South Africa. No wonder John Hall gave Ubogu an instant piece of his captain's mind, nor that Jack Rowell should have described the prop's action as 'something daft'. Rowell, after all, is the England manager (and, as of Saturday night, no longer Bath coach).
Ubogu managed to make it sound contentious, first by describing his punch as retaliation for being hit on the ground and, second, by suggesting Leicester had provoked the trouble, had been very niggly, and it was simply not in Bath's inveterately angelic nature to act so disreputably. Why had Leicester done it? 'If I was arrogant I would say it was because that was their only chance of winning.'
If this were so, it would be a desperate commentary on the English game, since Leicester are the one team capable of credibly challenging Bath, not so much in a one-off such as this as in the week-by-week, year-by-year drudgery (as it sometimes seems to be) of league rugby.
But back in reality, Dean Richards, the Tigers captain, was closer to the mark when he said: 'Perhaps when you get the two best sides in England playing each other there is always going to be a certain amount of tension. And, with it being a physical-contact game, it's always going to blow up. But there was nothing terribly serious.'
Anyone who knows the slightest thing about rugby knows it had been actually a rather mild expression of frustration / tension / whatever. And if, however mild, that still upsets non-aficionados, so be it. Those who were at the 1990 French championship final between Racing Club and Agen know what an authentic battle involves.
It was scarcely surprising that Rowell wanted to avoid the subject in his valedictory musings in a club capacity. 'This is a Double; who else does that?' he demanded. Answer: no one, even if Leicester may fancy their chances as their splendid young team continue to develop.
'Bath are the only side who have managed to put Leicester under real pressure this season - and then the relative inexperience of some of our players comes to the fore,' Ian Smith, their coach, said. This was more or less how it came to pass on Saturday, with possession only shared by Bath but its use controlled so much the better, especially by the outgoing double act of Barnes and Hill.
Leicester's fears were realised when the day dawned dank and drizzly, but even if Bath did adapt more readily it is idle to imagine they would not have preferred dry conditions just as much as Leicester. 'What we want is to win good ball and move it around; that's when Bath are at their best,' Rowell tried to explain. 'When the game disintegrates to stop- start, we are just another team. But when we are just another team, we do dog it out.'
The dogs did so even with an adverse penalty count of more than two to one. Despite the disparity, Jonathan Callard still had three penalty shots and kicked them all, whereas Jez Harris's three came from seven attempts. This was not where the game was won and lost, but for Leicester it was a grievous disappointment that their prolific stand-off should have this as an off-day.
Had Bath not concluded with a second try, their victory might have been soured by genuine contention. Smith was patently unhappy with aspects of the build-up to the first try, though without specifying what the referee may have missed or ignored. 'They always ride their luck well,' he said pointedly.
Once the ball had squirted back on Bath's side, Stuart Barnes found Phil de Glanville, whose instant vision in placing a kick diagonally behind Rory Underwood into the path of Tony Swift was matched by the sumptuous skill of the kick's execution and exploitation. 'I was just terrified, trying to run as fast as I could,' Swift said. Usefully for him, Underwood slipped in turning.
Later, Bath withstood a period of Leicester pressure which, though protracted, did not threaten a try. Then there was another slice of luck when Callard ran hard into a congested blind side and when he got the ball away, it was tipped to Mike Catt by the retreating Tiger, Darren Garforth. Callard joyously added the extras from the touchline.
Thus did Hall achieve his Double, Bath's third in six seasons, their eighth cup in 11, and if ever a player deserved the personal accolade granted by team triumph, it is the dauntless Bath captain. He wants a second season but has Ben Clarke standing against him and the complication that Steve Ojomoh, who, unlike Hall, is going to South Africa, is bound to consider his future at Bath if Hall continues to block his path into the team.
The captaincy is unlikely to be resolved until England return in mid-June but in the meantime Rowell, Ojomoh's England manager and Hall's ex-coach, made his feelings clear: 'He's got a huge heart. I told the players in the dressing-room before the game 'when you go out it's a privilege to follow him'. There's your answer.' Nothing enigmatic about that, nor about Bath's champion rugby.
Bath: Tries Swift, Catt; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 3. Leicester: Penalties Harris 3.
Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Adebayo; S Barnes, R Hill; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson (S Ojomoh, 50).
Leicester: W Kilford; T Underwood, S Potter, L Boyle, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.
Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).
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