Rugby Union: Shaken Bath fear for lost flame

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The Independent Online
It was no more than a throwaway line, but it cast such a piercingly truthful light on the parlous state of Bath Rugby Club that it might have come from the lips of Moses on Mount Sinai rather than Bob Dwyer on the steps of the Recreation Ground bar. "Why is everyone being so nice to me?" asked Leicester's victorious coach. "If I were a Bath man, I'd be spitting nails."

Perfectly innocent words, delivered with a cheery smile and another satisfying gulp of Chateau Rec. But whether or not Dwyer realised it, he was very close indeed to the heart of the matter: namely, the unmistakeable air of resignation circulating around a club famously built on the twin foundation stones of iron resolve and an almost irrational fear of defeat.

Increasingly large chunks of masonry had been falling from those foundations all season and on Saturday, the whole edifice came crashing down. To make things worse, the crash was noiseless; unable to summon the old warrior spirit, Bath relinquished their knock-out crown, not with a bang but a whimper.

The 39-28 scoreline did Leicester no favours, for their triumph was far more complete than the 11-point margin suggested. The Tigers murdered their great rivals at the line-out, swept them aside in the loose and, most startlingly of all, ran them ragged out wide to score five tries.

Five? At the Rec? In the Pilkington Cup? A bad dream, surely. As recently as last May, John Hall, the Bath team manager, was moved to pronounce: "This is our trophy. No one else's. It's ours."

Not any more, it isn't. Having started the campaign in pursuit of an English and European treble, only the Courage League title remains in their sights - and not even that will be there for much longer unless someone performs urgent surgery on Bath's flagging spirit.

Both Hall and Andy Robinson, the new chief coach, were in acute discomfort as they faced their after-match interrogators; when Bath last lost a cup tie, at Waterloo five years ago, they had played together in the back row, but as Hall admitted, that particular shock to the senses was nothing compared to this one. Waterloo was a fluke, a back-door job. Leicester, on the other hand, had walked straight in through the front door and kicked backsides.

"It's not the end of the world. It just feels like it," Hall said. "There were too many errors and not enough passion. We've been spasmodic all season and now it's come home to roost. One thing's for sure: there will be a few home truths dished out at our Monday meeting."

Hall's assertion that "the old ruthlessness" had somehow disappeared from Bath's game was borne out by at least three of the Leicester tries, all of which were finished off with a rare degree of sang-froid but resulted, nevertheless, from a generous defence that was more reminiscent of the Dalai Lama than Custer's Last Stand. Indeed, when Joel Stransky, the Tigers' Springbok outside-half, bemoaned some of the "unpleasant niggle" evident in the first half, West Country diehards could barely suppress their laughter. "Had Cooch, Dawesey, Robbo and the rest of the old school been out there," they seemed to be saying, "you might have discovered how unpleasant life can be."

Certainly, it was hard to imagine anything like a vintage Bath side allowing Stuart Potter a free ride through four tackles before unloading the scoring pass to Will Greenwood - quite brilliant once again - for an 18th-minute opener. Would Neil Back have come within a sniff of his chip-and-chase try within two ticks of the restart had the champions been on their mettle? Could Martin Johnson have imagined an easier gallop through the Bath line- out as he set up Greenwood's second try four minutes short of the hour? No wonder Robinson was muttering all manner of oaths under his breath as Hall fielded the embarrassing questions.

Only once did Bath even look like mounting a serious defence of their title. Leicester were leading 17-11 when, with the first half moving into injury time, Mike Catt unleashed a full-pelt raid down the right touchline, his eyes fixed on a match-turning score at the corner flag.

Out of nowhere came Austin Healey, whose world-class cover defence had let him down so publicly in last month's Heineken Cup final against Brive. No mistake this time. Bang, get into those advertising hoardings.

Back's audacious strike immediately on the resumption effectively settled the issue and despite some athletic vigour from the out-of-position Dan Lyle and a virtuoso display from Adedayo Adebayo, whose sheer commitment put the Bath pack to shame, the rest of the match was little more than a Leicester benefit. Dwyer's decision to drop Dean Richards and Rory Underwood for Eric Miller and Leon Lloyd bore enough fruit to fill an orchard; by contrast, Bath's selection gamble in the back row suffered more misfires than a London to Brighton car rally.

"Everyone had been wound up for this one all week," Dwyer said. "We even had a punch-up in training, the atmosphere was so touchy. Against Brive, we were not sufficiently switched on to cope with the physical onslaught. We were more `up' for this one." Compare those words to the sentiments of Steve Ojomoh, the Bath No 8 and pack leader, who admitted: "It all boiled down to the fact that Leicester wanted it more." Now that is heresy.

Bath: Tries Adebayo, De Glanville, Guscott. Conversions: Callard 2. Penalties Callard 3.

Leicester: Tries Greenwood 2, Potter, Back, Hackney. Conversions Stransky 4. Penalty Stransky. Drop goal Stransky.

Bath: J Callard; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo (C Harrison, 80); M Catt, I Sanders; D Hilton, F Mendez, J Mallett (V Ubogu, 67), M Haag (G Llanes, 56), N Redman, E Peters, S Ojomoh, D Lyle.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, S Potter, W Greenwood, L Lloyd; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), M Poole, J Wells (D Richards, 70), E Miller, N Back.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).