Rugby Union / Pilkington Cup Semi-Finals: Bath serve up feast of epic proportions: Swift end to Harlequins' thrilling comeback

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Harlequins. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25

Bath. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26

AT THE STOOP there was a feast fit for a king and, as television is now the king in rugby union after the signing of the new pounds 27m contract, the timing of one of the greatest of all cup ties could not have been improved.

Being enthusiastic where Harlequins evidently are not at the prospect of all that club rugby on Sky next season, we could regard the Quins-Bath semi-final live on Grandstand as giving a perfect taste, an epic (epicurean?) example, of the cut and thrust of cup - and club - rugby to a wider audience.

Such examples have been all too few in a largely unpalatable season. Even the most hardened of the participants, wizened Bathonians such as John Hall and Tony Swift who might have thought they had seen and done it all, could scarce forbear to cheer Quins' as well as their own handiwork.

'That,' Hall, the Bath captain, insisted, 'was one of the best games of rugby I've ever played in.' (He has had 255 for Bath alone.) Swift scored the first and last of Bath's four tries, the first one of the most extraordinary in all of their long years of dominance. 'I have never played in a game as dramatic as that,' he gasped. (He has had 217 for Bath alone.)

If I relate that Bath were 19-0 up after 22 minutes, 25-19 down with eight to go and finally won with a converted Swift try with fewer than four remaining, you may see what the long-since England wing meant.

For a while Bath played rugby that was as near perfection as anyone has a right to expect from these dedicated non-professionals. Near- perfect, but still imperfect. 'For 25 minutes we were absolutely awesome; that was some of the best Bath rugby I've ever seen,' Swift gushed.

'In terms of rugby ability, this is the best Bath side I've ever played in but in terms of being able to focus on a game for 80 minutes we seem to have something lacking. If we do that, this is the best Bath side ever.'

However big his words, it is a fundamental flaw that Bath have had to struggle so hard while they have proceeded on their familiar league and cup marathon. 'That's the best 20 minutes we've played this season against a quality side,' Hall said but, marvellous though it was, this was ultimately not a cause for congratulation.

For, long after the superlatives have been exhausted, we can be certain Leicester will be working on the exploitation of the vulnerability which has marked Bath's campaign, their uncharacteristic inability to turn the screw down tight.

The league game at Northampton in January remains the only time since the season's first three months when Bath have made their quality count. Even so, they are now contemplating Leicester not only in next Saturday's decisive league meeting at the Rec but also in a repeat of the momentous 1989 Pilkington final.

In fact Bath looked a better side than Quins only for that first, sublime period and then the final, decisive moments. The early try was marginally less spectacular than is suggested by its statistics - 32 pairs of hands and nine phases of play - but, there again, only three of the team were not directly involved in a build-up which ended with Swift, the right wing, materialising on the far left.

Next, Andy Robinson charged down Paul Challinor's kick to Stuart Barnes's advantage, though the barrel then had 65 yards to roll before scoring the try. 'That wasn't running; that was scuttling,' Hall said of a dash which betrayed the outside-half's unwonted fitness.

When Mike Catt scythed past Will Carling to create a third try by Jonathan Callard, Quins 'should have been dead', to quote Salmon. Instead, they turned to take the wind - and the rain and hail that came with it - and were so alive that in a tumultuous second-half half-hour they were ahead.

Carling held the ball in the tackle long enough to free a line of players on the right touchline with Martin Pepper getting the touchdown. Challinor made amends by charging down Catt's kick and rightly earned a penalty try when Callard cut him down in hot pursuit. Justyn Cassell, a replacement when Chris Sheasby dislocated a kneecap, was the beneficiary when Quins rolled a line-out over the Bath line.

Remarkable to relate but at this point, or more precisely once Challinor had added a drop goal, there seemed no way back for Bath, who were booted into incessant defence and unable to clear their lines because Quins were winning all their own line-outs as soon as the Bath defenders put the ball in touch.

Yet when the moment of crisis came, Bath, as ever, were equal to it. All of a sudden, they made their way at last into Quins territory, tapped a penalty instead of kicking for goal and went through three frantic phases of play before Catt and Callard combined to send Swift on an inward diagonal to his 150th Bath try which should have been halted by Cassell and more especially Kent Bray.

Callard's conversion, rather easier than his winning penalty of fading memory for England against Scotland, won the tie and a place before 68,000 (claimed to be a world record for a club match) at Twickenham on 7 May. It could, probably should, have been Harlequins'.

It is Quins' predicament that, their attitude to the First Division being as insouciant as it is, the rest of the season is unavoidably mundane. 'Against Orrell next week, can you see us playing like that?' Salmon mused rhetorically. 'We play Bath away in the league in three weeks; I'm not sure how many will be available for that.'

He was only half-joking. What, one wondered, was the secret of getting these immensely talented individuals to play like this week-in week-out? 'If I knew that,' Salmon said, 'I'd ask for a pay rise.'

Harlequins: Tries Pepper, Cassell, penalty try; Conversions Challinor 2; Penalty Challinor; Drop goal Challinor. Bath: Tries Swift 2, Barnes, Callard; Conversions Callard 3.

Harlequins: K Bray; J Keyter, W Carling, G Thompson (J Alexander, 27-36, h-t), D O'Leary; P Challinor, C Luxton; J Leonard, B Moore, A Mullins (capt), A Snow, P Thresher, M Russell, C Sheasby (J Cassell, 19-22, 40), M Pepper.

Bath: J Callard; A Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, A Lumsden; S Barnes, R Hill; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).

(Photograph omitted)