Rugby Union: Title rivals do their level best

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Bath . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20 Leicester. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20 SO AT LAST the irresistible force confronted the immoveable object. Both flinched, but neither recoiled, and the result was a draw which settled nothing but honoured both of them.

That morning, both sides had been unbeaten in the Courage Clubs' Championship with four points in hand on Bristol and twice as many as anyone else. So apart from shortening their joint lead (with Leicester marginally ahead on match points) this result could well keep the competition in suspense until they meet for their return match in April.

It was a disappointing result for Bath. But the heavens did not open and the Avon did not break its banks. For most of the match they were in control, restricted only by the infuriating accuracy of Jez Harris's place- kicking for Leicester, and Brian Ashton, the Bath coach, was bitterly disappointed to see his side let the lead slip. 'We made too many unforced errors again and ill-discipline also upset me,' he said. 'We gave them two penalties mid-way through the second half and lack of concentration is a problem.'

Nevertheless, this has not been an easy month for them. In a fraternal match (in the Cain and Abel sense) at Kingsholm, it had taken the best part of an hour to assert themselves over Gloucester. And by all reports they were lucky to beat West Hartlepool a week ago. There is still that final crushing element missing from their play.

Leicester were surprisingly late for their appointment with this footnote in rugby history. Their team bus was delayed in heavy motorway traffic, not reaching the ground until 1.45pm. And Tony Underwood, apparently travelling separately from London, arrived after the scheduled start, which had been brought forward to 2.30pm to accomodate Sky Sport. The kick-off was postponed for 10 minutes, but even so Leicester started without him, Jamie Hamilton, a scrum-half, taking his place on the right wing.

It was not the ideal build-up to a game which was bound to be edgy anyway, but Leicester seemed to find their composure quickly enough. After Jonathan Callard had kicked Bath into an early lead, Jez Harris reversed it the first eight minutes with two penalties for Leicester.

In fact it took Bath most of the first quarter to build up their own revs, though when they did find their heavy rhythm, the effect was devastating. In the 23rd minute they produced a try which took Leicester apart purely by the weight and pace of their running. The ball came right from Mike Catt to Philip de Glanville, with Adedayo Adebayo coming in from the left to take the next pass and give the movement thrust. And that still left Jeremy Guscott, making his first appearance at The Rec for a year, to deliver the coup de grace and Tony Swift, still an incomparable finisher, to cross in the corner.

Callard converted, but although the whole operation had an air of finality, Harris was to add his third penalty soon afterwards so that Bath changed ends with only a single point lead. What appeared to clinch it was the far simpler try they scored as soon as the game restarted. John Hall won the ball for them at a line-out close to the Leicester line, Ian Sanders slung the ball out, and Catt instinctively cut inside to the posts as the defence moved across to cover the flank. Callard's conversion put Bath eight points in the clear.

Yet as long as the small, trim Harris is on form, Leicester are always in with - if not a shout, a strangled cry of hope. And as the game moved into its final quarter, his fourth and fifth penalties briefly closed the gap to two points once more. Callard stretched it to five with his second penalty, but with scarcely more than 10 minutes to go Leicester had followed a line-kick by Harris into Bath's right corner, where they camped through a series of scrums and rucks. And when they finally manoeuvred a little space, it was, in the best melodramatic traditions, Hamilton, the understudy called on to take centre stage, who cut through for the try. Honours were even, and with Harris's conversion attempt curling past the post, so they were to stay.

Hamilton, however, was delighted to be given his chance. 'Tony almost did the same thing to me a couple of weeks ago,' he said. 'I certainly won't be accepting any lifts from him in the future.'

Bath: J Callard; T Swift, P de Glanville, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, I Sanders; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman, A Reed, A Robinson (T Beddow, 69), B Clarke, J Hall (capt).

Leicester: J Liley; J Hamilton, D Edwards, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, T Smith, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Referee: J Pearson (Yarm, Cleveland)