Bath 20 Leicester 14: Banahan makes big impact but Crockett makes the difference

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The Independent Online

The game within a game can be called the benchmark. It is about the choice of replacements and when and how they are used as sides look for a fresh angle on fresh legs as the clock ticks down.

At Bath, the coach Steve Meehan is following in the footsteps of some big hitters: Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson, John Connolly and Brian Ashton. Last season he had such a miserable time of it there was speculation that Robinson would replace him. This is one aspect of professional rugby that has picked up a bad habit from football.

Anyway, Meehan remained and Robinson took over at Edinburgh, although on Saturday the former England coach was at the Rec, drinking a beer on the terraces with some old mates. He would have liked what he saw for there is a buzz back at the Rec and Bath are threatening to have a memorable season.

They have lost just one game – to Leicester at Welford Road in the Guinness Premiership – and Meehan, without conspicuous consumption on the spending front, seems to have found the right balance to the squad.

Bath were behind for much of this match in group B of the EDF Energy Cup – the Tigers are the defending champions – before Meehan made some astute substitutions in the second half. While Richard Cockerill, Leicester's acting head coach, beefed up his pack with the introduction off the bench of two new but grizzled old props, Bath brought the Samoan Jonny Faamatuainu into the back row and he made an immediate impact in defence and attack. Big hits were celebrated by high fives with team-mates while the tackled were wondering where they were.

The young stand-off Ryan Davis, who had found his opposite number Ian Humphreys hard to handle, limped off with a leg injury to be replaced by the more experienced Shaun Berne and that worked a treat as well, but the most intriguing appearance of all was that of Matt Banahan.

At 6ft 7in he is the tallest player in the Bath squad, taller even than Danny Grewcock. Banahan looks more like a lock than a wing which is not surprising. He used to play in the second row. He is not your archetypal rugby player. Indeed, for most of his young life he wasn't a rugby player at all.

Banahan's chosen sport was hockey and for a while he was the leading player in Jersey, where he grew up, and up. An imposing figure (he weighs around 16 and a half stone) he tried his hand at rugby and joined the academy at London Irish – as a lock.

Last season he moved to the junior ranks at Bath where Meehan and his coaching staff came up with what might turn out to be a brainwave. Two things struck them about Big Banahan – he wasn't very good at jumping in the line-out but he was surprisingly quick. They converted him into a wing, just like that.

On Saturday Banahan, who made his Premiership debut this season, replaced Michael Stephenson on the left wing in the 59th minute and three minutes later produced a touch of wizardry that was almost breathtaking. Given the context of the game – Bath were 14-13 down at the time – it was breathtaking.

Big Banahan was making a run down the left flank and he was probably no more than a foot from the touchline. Leicester, whose defence had been excellent all afternoon, had the situation well covered. And then the legerdermain. With no option available to him, Banahan flicked a one-handed inside pass to a teammate. Except that he didn't.

It was a dummy and a half from heaven and everybody bought it. The result is that there was nobody between Banahan and the Leicester line. What happened next is that the Rec faithful rose to their feet to celebrate an extraordinary feat but as Banahan crossed the line – catastrophe.

We have to remember he is a 21 year-old former hockey player. With the ball tucked, not too securely, under his left arm, he attempted to touch down using only half his body instead of both hands and the ball disappeared from his grasp. Gasps all round.

"Having done all the hard work he was bitterly disappointed to miss out on the try," Meehan said. "For Matt it's all about learning." He looks as if he's a quick learner. It could have been a seminal moment but Banahan's blushes were spared when Alex Crockett produced a run reminiscent of a downhill slalom, wrong-footing defender after defender in a startling route to the posts. He did not drop the ball over the line but then he's a lot more experienced at that sort of thing.

In the battle of the half-backs, Humphreys and Frank Murphy looked far sharper and more accomplished, the former running through his book of tricks as Leicester, who had rested all their England players from the World Cup, built an 11-3 lead after 27 minutes, Sam Vesty selling a dummy to score just about where Banahan should subsequently have scored.

But the new Bath have something about them, not least a front row reinforced by the return of David Flatman and the signing of the Romanian Paulica Ion, who brings 19st of iron to the scrum. He is as raw as Banahan but the Tigers could not subdue him. Indeed, on the stroke of half-time, the Bath scrum was going for a pushover try when Frank Murphy nicked the ball out of the back row and conceded a penalty try. This was the biter bit. Pushover tries are a Leicester speciality.

"We could have won," Cockerill said, "but at least we got a bonus point and we've got two home games to come." They also have Marcelo Loffreda to come, the coach of Argentina who did such a brilliant job with the Pumas in the World Cup, not to mention Sir Clive Woodward, who has joined the Tigers' board. As for Bath, they are awaiting the return next weekend of their World Cup winner, the South Africa stand-off Butch James. James seems to be going from one successful party to another.

Bath: Tries Penalty, Crockett; Conversions Davis, Berne; Penalties Davis 2. Leicester: Try Vesty; Penalties Humphreys 3.

Bath: N Abendanon; A Higgins, A Crockett, T Cheeseman, M Stephenson (M Banahan, 59); R Davis (S Berne, 52), M Claassens; D Flatman, R Hawkins, P Ion, S Borthwick (capt), P Short, A Beattie, D Browne, J Scaysbrook (J Faamatuainu, 57).

Leicester: S Vesty; J Murphy, A Erinle, M Cornwell (T Youngs, 44), T Varndell; I Humphreys, F Murphy; D Cole (M Ayerza, 44), M Davies (capt), D Young (A Moreno, 44), R Blaze (J Hamilton, 54), M Wentzel, T Croft, J Crane, L Abraham.

Referee: A Rowden (England).

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