Alan Watkins on Rugby: Heroic, epic even, but was it a great game?

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The Independent Online

"Is that interesting, Daddy?" she asked, with genuine curiosity. "No, my dear," I replied. "It is not in the least bit interesting. It's interesting to me, because I write about rugby. But even people who are interested in rugby wouldn't find it interesting."

I hoped that made the matter clearer. At any rate it was the attitude adopted also by those accomplished commentators Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes. Neither side, they agreed, knew what to do with the ball when they had it, Gloucester and their outside-half Ludovic Mercier being particular offenders in this regard. At half-time this view was echoed by the studio pundits, Michael Lynagh and Dewi Morris.

In the second half, admittedly, things changed. Andrew Higgins, the Bath centre, had been sent off for accumulating two yellow cards, the first for nearly decapitating James Simpson-Daniel and the second for laying Mike Tindall low with a leg that would have done credit to Nobby Stiles. I cannot, by the way, agree with Barnes that Simpson-Daniel's relatively modest 5ft 9in somehow made the tackle excusable. Shortish players have a hard enough time as it is, without being made to take the additional risk of having their heads knocked off.

Higgins' sins meant that Bath, quite properly, had to play the second half with only 14 men, and for much of the period they were down to 13. Even so, their front five outplayed Gloucester. Not only Danny Grewcock but Steve Borthwick as well showed that they deserved the favourable attention of Andy Robinson, the England head coach, who was present on the occasion, wearing his customary puzzled expression. Chris Malone, the Bath outside-half, dropped a colossal goal from behind the half-way line. And Olly Barkley kicked a winning goal, then limped off, then limped back on again.

It was undoubtedly a heroic performance by the home side. It may have been an epic game, as one would expect from two clubs who dislike each other so intensely that, in the sad old days when divisional rugby was important, they could not manage to produce even a halfway decent combined team.

But did it amount to a great game of rugby? Most of the correspondents in the Sunday and Monday papers seemed to think that it did. John Connolly, the Bath joint coach, shortly to return to his native Queensland, was quoted as saying that the standard displayed before our wondering eyes was that of Test rugby. If that was so, we need look no further for an explanation of the decline of Australia.

Perhaps it made a difference if you were at the ground and were able to share in the emotion generated. But Barnes, himself one of the greatest of Bath's players, did not seem to support this universally glowing opinion of what was being set before us, any more than I did - unless, of course, I misunderstood him. And the way Sky puts out its broadcasts means that we do not hear too much after the match from the player-pundits who had been so eloquent at half-time.

Samuel Johnson wrote that Gulliver's Travels was but big men and little men and, once you had thought of that, it was easy to do the rest. The Premiership seems to be big men and even bigger men, forever bumping into one another. That is why the restyled Powergen Cup has been such a relief at this early stage of the season. And that, too, is why everyone has been looking forward to the Heineken Cup, whose first weekend takes place in a few days' time.

I look forward in particular to seeing Gary Connolly, formerly of Wigan and other League clubs, playing for Munster. A decade ago, he had a short spell at outside centre for Harlequins, where he astonished everybody by his ability to stand up in the tackle and offload the ball. That is a skill which is largely missing from the Premiership today. It was certainly missing from the Bath v Gloucester match on Saturday.

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