Rugby Union: Wrecking ball of Ntamack flattens the Rec

HEINEKEN CUP Young Bath side exposed by Toulouse steamroller while Wasps' Samoan heavyweight leaves Scarlets red-faced
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Bath 25 Toulouse 32

"TURN-OVERS, it was all about turn-overs," muttered Ben Clarke as he walked towards the sponsors' hospitality suites on the far side of the Recreation Ground for a corporate beer he was in no real mood to enjoy. "When you give free possession to a side like Toulouse, the next time you can expect to touch the ball is after they've kicked the conversion." Fair comment, as it happens; Bath were turned over big time. But that was only the half of it. They were also slapped down, trussed up, hung out to dry and left dangling by their unmentionables. The Frenchmen did not even need any good fortune. Had Mademoiselle Luck put in an appearance, they would have scored 50.

Toulouse may be the aristocrats of Tricolore rugby, but the Heineken Cup tumbrels were full of Englishmen on Saturday. Emile Ntamack, the executioner- in-chief, scored three tries with such effortless insouciance that he might have been flicking the switch on a labour-saving, semi-automatic guillotine. As he purred away for his 79th winner in the right corner, barely breaking stride in shrugging off the covering challenges of Iain Balshaw and Kevin Maggs, the most powerful mental image was of Monty Python's ghastly old scarf-knitting harridan, enjoying her afternoon's head-rolling entertainment on the Place de la Revolution. "Ooh look, there goes another one."

If Ntamack was stunning - "I think perhaps his best position is centre, but for European matches, when I need all my strongest players together on the pitch, he must be a wing," said Guy Noves, the Toulouse coach - he was not alone. Cedric Desbrosse was too strong, and Lee Stensness too crafty for the Bath midfield, while Alain Penaud and Jerome Cazalbou were too knowing by half in the pivot roles. As for the prime boeuf up front (the French do not acknowledge the word "beef"), the big statements were made first by Fabien Pelous, then by Sylvain Dispagne, and finally by the replacement prop, Luigi Esposito, who came off the bench to give poor Clem Boyd the mother and father of a pasting at the set-piece. The Bath loose head ended up in a place "where the sun don't shine", as they say in the trade.

It was a chastening experience, not just for a West Country audience reared on continental deeds of derring-do but for English rugby generally. Less than 24 hours previously, Leicester had turned up their toes in Dublin and handed the Pool A initiative to Stade Francais. By losing for the first time in eight Heineken Cup encounters at The Rec, the 1998 European champions also ceded control of their own tournament destiny. Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, did not attempt to minimise the damage that had just been inflicted by Franck Belot's hugely accomplished outfit. Asked whether his side could possibly win the return match at Les Sept-Deniers in the middle of January, he replied ominously: "It's going to be difficult enough winning at Padova next weekend."

During his active career as the most implacably competitive of open-side flankers, Robinson played in dozens of games in which he and his club- mates were run off their feet, yet found it within themselves to present a two-fingered salute both to logic and justice by nicking a result at the death. Bath were not known as the "Liverpool of rugby" for nothing. And, on the face of it, this latest vintage hung in there like the master pickpockets of old; the home side were still level at 25-25 with a minute left on the clock and, therefore, one sweet Jon Callard penalty strike from another unlikely, undeserved and inexplicable victory.

But these youthful Bathonians are a million miles from the cussed, streetwise Bath of even two years ago. Uncomfortable in the knowledge that their opponents held all the important cards, they must also have been aware that every point would be precious. So what did they do? They rejected at least two, maybe three, kickable second-half penalties and chipped to the corners instead. Brilliant.

If Callard, of all people, was responsible for those options, and as captain he must have been, he should consult his local psychiatrist without further ado. The memory of two contrasting Heineken Cup experiences, in Cardiff in 1997 and Bordeaux in '98, ought to have been in the forefront of his mind. Bath lost a quarter-final at the Arms Park because the former England full-back was not there to kick the goals. A year later, they beat a more gifted Brive to the title largely because he was.

Robinson was having none of it - not publicly, at least. "We might have scored two tries off those line-outs," he insisted afterwards, sticking to the party line as though he were Chief Whip rather than Prime Minister. "From the first, Warwick Waugh's scoring pass to Ben went to ground. From the second, Tokunbo Adebayo spilled the ball after finding big space in their 22." He knew full well that the calls were wrong, though, just as he knew that his failure to introduce Jon Preston to the fray was a serious foul-up. Forced into a change at the break, when the threatening Mike Tindall gave best to a leg injury, the coach put a big-game rookie, Adebayo, on the left wing when he might have slipped a proven All Black match-winner, Preston, into his midfield. Presumably, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Which is not to lay subsequent events solely at Adebayo's door; his more celebrated brother, the former international wing Adedayo, would have struggled to cope with Ntamack in this mood. The visitors' third try was an absolute pearl - some sneaky midfield jiggery-pokery from Stensness and a wonderful 45 metre finish from the wing, who came off his right foot and slashed the Bath defence in two - and while Maggs gave his side hope with a long-range score of his own, those with eyes to see could have predicted that the classiest act on the field would have the final say. Dispagne charged down an attempted clearance by Mike Catt to set the coup de grace in motion and despite Gareth Cooper's brave attempt to reclaim the loose ball, Pelous and Desbrosse gave Ntamack a line to the corner. Even at this early stage of proceedings, it looked very much like a line to the quarter-finals as well.

Bath: Try Maggs; Conversion Callard; Penalties Callard 6. Toulouse: Tries Ntamack 3, Marfaing; Conversions Marfaing 3; Penalties Marfaing 2.

Bath: J Callard (capt); I Balshaw, M Tindall (T Adebayo, h-t), S Berne, K Maggs; M Catt, G Cooper; C Boyd, M Regan (A Long, 69), C Horsman (J Mallett, 71), W Waugh, S Borthwick, B Clarke, A Gardiner (G Thomas, 69), B Sturnham.

Toulouse: S Ougier (P Bondouy, 64); E Ntamack, C Desbrosse, L Stensness, M Marfaing; A Penaud, J Cazalbou; C Soulette (F Gentil, 79), Y Bru, F Tournaire (L Esposito, 60), F Pelous, F Belot (H Miorin, 66), D Lacroix, C Labit (J Bouilhou, 76), S Dispagne.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).