Rugby Union: Sturnham strides to Bath's rescue

Bath 23 London Irish 20
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The Independent Online
BATH WENT to the top of the Premiership for the first time in 30 months yesterday after staging a rousing, remarkable recovery against London Irish at the Recreation Ground. Whether they will stay there for long is open to doubt.

London Irish, rejuvenated and reinvented by their coach Dick Best, with the help of an influx of southern hemisphere talent, out-played the European Cup holders here in a manner not seen since the Romans were in town.

In the end a huge contribution from Ben Sturnham gave Bath a victory that typified the spirit of a club who have done it all. Yesterday they had to give their all after taking a hammering in the first half.

Sturnham, signed from Saracens at the end of last season, scored a try in each half and made the most of an extraordinary reprieve. A week ago he was sent off for stamping against Bedford. Bath decided he was innocent until proven guilty and selected him while waiting for a tribunal at Twickenham to make judgement. The fact that Bath were desperately short of lock forwards is, of course, coincidental.

Sturnham, who normally plays in the back row, showed great pace for the first try in the fifth minute, while his second 60 minutes later from the back of a scrum was the decisive score.

In between, London Irish, who had lost eight league matches out of eight against Bath, probably thought they had done enough to break the sequence. Whatever, it was a pulsating spectacle.

Bath began in traditional fashion, that is to say with Mike Catt missing a relatively easy penalty. However, Kieran Campbell kicked the ball down Matt Perry's throat instead of finding touch. The England full-back ran it back, beating three men in the process, and when the ball was switched to the right, Jeremy Guscott and Jim Fallon timed their passes to perfection to send Sturnham galloping over unopposed.

For the remainder of the half, the West Countrymen were taken to the Roman baths. In the 17th minute a series of punishing drives exhausted their defence and Matt Jones found Conor O'Shea with a sublime pass. The Irish full-back sold a dummy before scoring under the posts from 40 yards.

Perry then had to make try-saving tackles on Robert Todd and Kieron Dawson before Todd crossed the line. No try was given but after 26 minutes Campbell drew Iain Balshaw before slipping a pass to the unmarked Naill Woods, who went over in the corner. That gave the Irish a 12-5 lead and such was their style and passion they might have been out of sight by half- time.

Bath, who had lost Eric Peters early on, suffered another blow when John Mallett, who was involved in a collision with the referee, went down clutching an ankle. The injury was serious enough for the prop to be stretchered off.

Although Woods landed a penalty to stretch the Irish lead to 10 points, Bath staged a magnificent counter attack. First Balshaw exploited space on the left wing and after a thrilling 50-yard run, in which he beat Rob Gallacher for pace, he was brought down a couple of yards short by an ankle tap from Woods. However, with impressive dexterity he picked himself up and made the line. It looked like the Balshaw ballet.

Catt's conversion made it 12-15 and now it was London Irish's turn to defend their line against a series of frenzied attacks. Catt landed two penalties to put them ahead before Sturnham, now playing No 8, broke from a scrum and beat Woods and Gallacher en route to another unstoppable run.

Bath: M Perry; J Fallon (P de Glanville, 51), K Maggs, J Guscott, I Balshaw; M Catt, S Harley; K Yates, A Long, J Mallett (V Ubogu, 41), M Haag, B Sturnham, N Thomas, E Peters (R Earnshaw, 16), R Webster (capt, D Jones, 51).

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, R Todd (N Burrows, 76), B Venter, N Woods; M Jones (J Brown, 65), K Campbell; M Worsley, R Kirke (M Howe, 76), R Hardwick (K Fullman, 55), N Harvey (M Bird, 71), M O'Kelly, K Spicer (M Jarvis, 41), R Gallacher, K Dawson.

Referee: C Rees (London).

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