Bath 21 Gloucester 12: Perry's class guides Bath past youthful neighbours

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The Independent Online

It is always good to welcome a few ghosts of Christmas past to the banks of the Avon, especially when Bath have been so Scrooge-like for so long on the try-scoring front. For a few moments either side of the 20-minute mark they played the kind of rugby their newly appointed director of rugby, Brian Ashton, might have recognised from his previous life as head coach at the Recreation Ground in the latter years of the last century. Better still, Matthew Perry spent the entire 80 minutes reminding the Powergen Cup audience just how good he was in his pomp. For those who may have forgotten, he was very good indeed.

Perry has been through the horrors of Hades in recent seasons. His back seized up, his hamstring exploded, his whole body might as well have been donated to sports science. He still goes to London every week for specialist treatment, such is the potential for relapses of various kinds. But at 28, he is beginning to free up sufficiently to play more games than he misses, and on Saturday night he showed signs of rediscovering substantial amounts of the form that earned him automatic starting places with the England of Clive Woodward and the Lions of Graham Henry.

Such has been his tale of woe, even Gloucester might have been expected to give him a sympathetic break. Fat chance. They were more interested in breaking his neck. As early as the fifth minute, an upstart of a full-back by the name of Olly Morgan tackled his elder and better while the latter was airborne and was dispatched to the sin bin without passing "Go". Ninety seconds or so later, Perry again launched himself at a high ball and again ended up in a heap, courtesy of Mike Tindall, once a colleague of his at Bath as well as with England. Clearly, all is fair in love, war and professional club rugby.

Of course, Perry had been subjected to far worse down the years - he once put two tries past the Wallabies in Sydney, only to finish the game looking as though he had been involved in a head-on smash somewhere along the Great Pacific Highway. On this occasion, he shook himself down and proceeded to give Morgan in particular and the Gloucester backs in general a masterclass in wet-weather defence, intelligent option-taking and protection of the ball in contact. The only obvious missing ingredient from days of yore was genuine pace, and he never had much of that anyway.

"Actually, I think he can build on the pace aspect of his game," said Michael Foley, the Bath coach, afterwards. "The thing about Matt is that as far as his injuries are concerned, he's over the hump. If he gets a good pre-season behind him, a run of matches and some old-fashioned luck, he will contribute massively to Bath in the future. He's a terrific full-back. Always was, and still is."

This was Foley's first game back in the No 1 position he first held in the early months of 2002 and all-too-happily relinquished when John Connolly, his friend and mentor, agreed to undertake a tour of West Country duty a year or so later. During Connolly's stewardship, the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker retreated into the shadows and worked at his coaching.

Everyone knew before the weekend that he had succeeded in constructing a pack of considerable power and energy. What they did not know was how the much-criticised Bath backs would respond to his urgings.

They responded rather well. Eighteen minutes in, Chris Malone capitalised on some ox-like work from Matt Stevens down the right touchline to kick into space for the eager Olly Barkley, who completed the try without so much as a smidgen of interference from the befuddled Gloucester rearguard.

Seven minutes later, Malone made a half-break - what fool said the age of miracles had passed? - to send Stevens careering up the middle, and Nick Walshe added the loveliest of blind-side chips to create an even better try for Joe Maddock. Bath were 15-3 to the good and set fair for the Powergen Cup semi-finals.

Yet it was Gloucester, who prevail at the Rec about as often as Norman Tebbit sings "The Internationale", who shaded the second half, and had it not been for some defensive brilliance from the increasingly impressive Lee Mears, who won a penalty off Terry Fanolua just when the Cherry and Whites were threatening to snatch the lead in the last 10 minutes, the story might well have ended differently. As it was, Malone nailed it with a straightforward three-pointer in stoppage time - the result of more strong work from Mears, this time with ball in hand. Gloucester could not complain, but they were far from outclassed.

"When you're up against the likes of Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick, when it's pissing down with rain, when you know you won't get the decisions that might go your way back home in front of the Shed, when the statistics tell you that away victories at this level are very rare indeed ... well, it's a tall order to win down here, isn't it?" said Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach.

"But we've spent the last six weeks fielding a side with an average age of 22 or 23, and I think they've been fantastic. We'll make mistakes, obviously, but Morgan may well be an England full-back of the future, we have two young wings who look the part and a centre in Anthony Allen who seems at home in the first team."

All true. Gloucester, who used to be a pack and nothing much else, are beginning to look better behind than they do up front. Wonders will never cease.

Bath: Tries Barkley, Maddock; Conversion Barkley; Penalties Barkley 2, Malone; Gloucester: Penalties Mercier 4.

Bath: M Perry; J Maddock, A Crockett, O Barkley (R Davis, 40), F Welsh; C Malone, N Walshe; D Barnes (D Bell, 73), L Mears, M Stevens, D Grewcock, S Borthwick (capt), J Scaysbrook, M Lipman, G Delve (I Fea'unati, 69).

Gloucester: O Morgan; M Foster, M Tindall (T Fanolua, 69), A Allen, J Bailey; L Mercier, P Richards (H Thomas, 57); N Wood (G Powell, 78), M Davies, P Vickery (capt), A Eustace, M Cornwell, P Buxton, A Hazell, A Balding (J Forrester, 69).

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

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