Rugby Union: Quins show Zinzan steel

Bath 13 Harlequins 17
Click to follow
The Independent Online
EUROPE HAS a lot to answer for. The importance of qualifying for this lucrative competition next season is turning stout men into jibbering wrecks. For the six minutes of injury time at the end of this enthralling, untidy contest, Bath hammered relentlessly against Harlequins' superbly marshalled and committed defence. If their dying efforts were as frantic as they were furious it was simply because they had spurned so many glorious opportunities to win the match and with it the almost certain qualification for Europe. But they were paying now for countless squandered opportunities, and although a try was all they needed they were confronted by a team going for the same prize and who eventually prevailed.

It was breathtaking stuff and at the end of an unbroken passage of play lasting at least four minutes in which the ball sped through countless pairs of hands from one side of the field to the other the disappointment in the Bath ranks was obvious for all to see. Throughout the match passes went astray, kicks were shanked, charged down and missed with stunning regularity and if Bath don't make it into the elite group next season they will look back on this match as a watershed in their fortunes.

That the result was even in doubt was due as much to Bath's profligacy as it was to Quins' doggedness. If Zinzan Brooke has done nothing else he has instilled a determination to fight until the bitter end, and despite the fact that for long spells they were outplayed this is exactly what Quins did. Nine minutes from the end Chris Sheasby gathered Iain Balshaw's clearing kick and linked with Peter Mensah, who put Jamie Williams clear down the left wing to score the try which won the match.

There is much still to admire in this Bath side and considering the youth of so many of their players there is a great deal to look forward to, but they were undone by their inexperience.

The blistering pace of Balshaw caused all manner of problems, and so quick was he in defence that it was hard for the Quins' kickers to find open space inside the Bath 22. But for all his talents Balshaw made a number of howlers and was directly responsible for Quins' second try when Mensah charged down his intended touch-kick, picked up the favourable bounce and ambled over. Balshaw had found himself in this embarrassing position as a result of Matt Perry's curious reluctance to test himself when he is given time and space to use his ability to the full. Given both, he hesitated and back-tracked before off-loading the ball and the responsibility to a less well-placed colleague.

Nevertheless, Perry, like Balshaw, is one of the new generation upon whom Bath are placing their future. Given the goal-kicking duties in the absence of Mike Catt, who had not fully recovered from the head knock he received last week, Perry did passably well, although he did, in quick succession in the first half, miss with a couple of relatively simple penalties, which would, had he converted them, have been a fairer reflection of Bath's superiority at that stage.

The same could be said of Balshaw just before half-time when he was stopped short by Williams' crushing tackle a yard from the line. With Mensah's equally palpable hit on Dan Lyle in the second half, Quins owed much to their defenders, although Lyle's failure to make use of a five-man overlap bordered on the criminal and was another example of Bath's failure to take their chances.

Bath's superior organisation up-front profited them early as they drove Quins back with a series of tightly controlled rolling mauls. This enabled them to exploit their pace behind, and Perry's two successful penalties both for offside within the first 12 minutes, hardly flattered them. But as they did at crucial times Bath surrendered the advantage. Mensah broke down the right and although his delay in passing to Williams sealed off that particular avenue, Quins worked the ball to Thierry Lacroix, whose cut-out pass to John Schuster was followed by one of equal length from the New Zealander to Dan Luger. This gave Luger just enough room to score in the corner.

Unfortunately Luger followed this with a piece of carelessness which cost a try. He failed to deal promptly with Perry's grubber and from the line-out Kevin Maggs broke through, with Russell Earnshaw at his shoulder, to score the try which Perry converted.

Bath then proceeded to spurn the chances which might have cushioned them against Harlequins' stirring second-half revival. Criticism of Bath's failings should not conceal the spirit within this Harlequins side.

There was heroic service yesterday from every man Jack of them, with special praise for the tackling of Rory Jenkins and Mensah, who twice injured himself in the cause when making try-saving tackles. Huw Harries with a stream of accurate passes at scrum-half and some deft touches was another to catch the eye but this was a team performance in the best traditions of Bath in their great days.

Bath: I Balshaw; M Tindall (P de Glanville, 10), K Maggs, J Guscott (capt), A Adebayo; M Perry, G Cooper; D Hilton (K Yates, 71), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, R Earnshaw, D Lyle, N Thomas.

Harlequins: J Williams; J Keyter, P Mensah, J Schuster (D Officer, 71), D Luger; T Lacroix, H Harries (N Walshe, 74); J Leonard, K Wood, R Nebbett (G Halpin, 56), G Llewellyn, G Morgan, Z Brooke (capt, A Leach, 59), C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

Referee: S Piercy (Cleveland)